Saturday, May 28, 2011

Peerless Pier

To everyone who has been here to visit us, I apologize. I don't know what I was thinking. Why didn't I take you down to the Port San Luis Pier?

It's beautiful, and interesting, and fun, safe for kids, dog-friendly and you can get great food there. That makes it exactly the kind of outing we should offer to all our beloved house-guests!

But, it's not just a tourist attraction. It's a real working fisherman's, I mean, fisher-person's...decked out with all kinds of impressive looking equipment for messing around with boats and hauling up loads of fresh-caught seafood.

That's what makes it so charming. It is NOT like the pier you can drive out on in Santa Barbara. For one, once you get out to the end of this pier...there is actually room to park your car. You don't have to just turn around and drive back. And there aren't any shops selling cutesy crap that no one really needs. The only "junk" you see is the kind that people actually use for working on their boats and catching fish.

Now that I think about it, you can do a little shopping. Right near the parking area, you should find a door that is propped open, and leads into a work area with a cement floor, huge bins of ice, a drain in the center of the floor, and a cash register on a counter. This is where you can buy VERY fresh fish.

And for vegetarians, or just anyone in the mood for a special treat, look in the cooler for tubs of seaweed salad. favorite.

The complete lack of pretension is so refreshing, that you may be tempted to step on in and start asking about the latest catch. That's to the fisher-people all you want, just don't buy anything yet! You don't want to be packing a bag of ice around with you during your entire visit.

First, you should just walk around and admire the views. On the north side, steep hills covered in bushy greenery emerge peacefully from this calm little corner of the Pacific.

And if you're interested in looking at pleasure crafts or working boats, there are plenty of both.

Or maybe you'd like to do some fishing of your own? You'll be in good company if you do.

Or just enjoy the live music.

Whatever you do, make sure you either show up with an appetite, or stay long enough to acquire one, because the Pier is a great place to eat!

One of your options is well-appointed establishment run by the same people that bring the fish stand to the Los Osos Farmer's Market. (As you can see, this photo is from a market day, not from our afternoon at the pier.)

Sorry, but we didn't go into the restaurant, so I didn't get a good picture of how nice it is inside. I'm sure it's worth checking out, I've just never eaten there. I love their organization and want to support them, but I will probably continue to limit my patronage to the Farmers Market booth. Out on the pier, their restaurant just seems a little pricey compared to the other delicious option: Pete's Pierside Cafe!

I don't know why Pete calls it that. The restaurant is not beside the pier, it's right on top of it! You'll know you've found it when you see the big pink octopus.

This is a walk-up window ordering situation. And, unless you want to take your plate back to your car, you dine out in the open air. There is a roof, and something of a wind break, which partly sheild the eating area, but it can still be chilly and breezy. I sat with blanket wrapped around me even though I was a pleasant day and I was wearing long sleeves and pants.

But the food is good, and fresh, and reasonably priced. We got french-fries and crab cocktail and a fish taco. If you do the same, don't be disappointed when your boring naked taco first arrives.

Just take it on a little trip to the condiment bar, where you can dress it up properly for this festive occasion.

Another warning: if you decide to order a beer, make sure you either REALLY want one, or have a friend to share it with. They do not mess around with ordinary sized beers at Pete's.

Even though we enjoyed our meal, and our beer, very much...I have to admit that we made a somewhat tame and boring choice. If we had really been committed to enjoying the best the Pier had to offer, we would have gone around back and picked out our lunch while it was still alive.

If you decide to take advantage of this option, just look for this movie-poster-inspired sign.

And then head to the big white bin full of doomed crustaceans.

Once you choose the tastiest looking ones, go back to the plastic covered picnic tables to await your meal. You will be given some tools.

But no bib, so make sure you have some napkins on hand.

After awhile, the server will come out and spread newspaper pages all over the table. That's when you know it's almost time.

And then...suddenly a steaming steamer-bucket of crabs is upside down in front of you!

But really, you don't have to be personally responsible for crab execution make the most of this place. It's really just enough to watch the spectacle of the thing. I love crab, and I don't mind cracking them open. But I had an awfully good time just eating my user-friendly fish taco and watching the other visitors work for their meal.

The people in the picture above didn't just order fresh crab. They also had a bucket of raw oysters delivered! It was fascinating watching the father of the group dig a short, blunt-ended knife into each oyster, pry it open, and then hand it to his wife or one of his children. They all waited patiently until every person had one, and then they tipped up the shells and slurped them in unison.

This seemed like a fun family to belong to. I hope they were all enjoying themselves as much as I enjoyed watching them. And I hope, when you visit the Port San Luis Pier, you enjoy it as much as I do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Listen to this

If you live in the area, chances are you have heard of of our local vocal genius, Inga Swearingen. If you don't, you probably haven't...unless you are a faithful listener of Prairie Home Companion...she's been on the show several times, at least.

She's just about one of the best musical performers in the world, as far as I've concerned. I was going to write that she's one of the best I've ever seen, but I hardly ever go to live that's not saying much. And this is a case where I really do want to say much, because she's amazing.

She does free form improvisational jazz vocalizations...and I bet she's pretty proud of herself in that area...she should be, anyway, because she's got to be the number one, very best person on the planet when it comes to "scat" and that sort of thing. But honestly, that's never my favorite part of her performances.

I love when she sings real words, especially when they fit together to make a story. As far as the recorded music of hers that I have at home, the one I listen to most is "Where Flamingoes Fly." It's just beautiful. Gorgeous. Delicious. Delicate. Powerful. Entrancing.

When I listen to Inga, I feel like I am being confronted with the true force of human intelligence, converted to sound waves. Yes, she shines on stage, but she also embodies a brilliance like that of Einstein and Hawking. She has a mental power, that she uses to create incredible beauty.

Her manager probably wouldn't like to hear her described in this way. The sound of crystal clear thinking just doesn't seem as marketable as the cry of a soulful siren. But the way I see it, our mind and our spirit are interlinked in a magical mysterious way, and listening to Inga sing reminds how to feel awe over this fact.

Or maybe her "beautiful mind" is one of her sell-able qualities. Perhaps we've finally reached a time in our culture when big brains are just as valued as big hearts, and men DO make passes as girls who wear glasses. We all seem to agree that education is desirable. (I know Obama's critics call him "professorial" but to me this quality is a big part of his charm, and why I feel compelled to trust him.) And, apparently, science is sexy. (Why else would the bible-thumping, chastity-pledge crowd resist it so strongly?)

But we don't have to worry about whether or not calling Inga's music "smart, incisive and perfectly calculated" will harm her image or help it. I'm sure she has very capable people in charge of that thing. After all, her summer tour is taking her all the way to Austraila this summer!

For us...the writer and readers of this blog...the only important thing is that she is well-known enough that we get to hear about her, and can listen to her music.

Here's here website:

And you can buy her stuff on itunes, too. (I'm pretty sure.)

And if you are in the area, you can join us on Sat. June 11th to hear her perform at the Steynberg.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Go to your left, your right, your left

I made it back to the Johnson Ranch trail...with the proper shoes, and a couple of friends.
We met at the trail head parking lot. And, as trail head parking lots go, this is a very nice one, with plenty of room, and great signage. It's worth a visit just to look at the view from here, and read about the local flora and fauna.

And unlike so many trailheads, this one has a very detailed and easy to understand map of the route. (It also shows the location and accessibility of a dozen or so other trails and nature preserves in and around the city. Fabulous info!)

There were also panels discussing the history of the family that has lived on this property for generations and gave the land as a gift to the city and her citizens. Also, an essay about the Bellevue school house that used to be here. But I was too impatient to pause and read these. Ever since my earlier failed trip, I'd been eaten up with curiosity about what I would find when I ventured into the inviting curves of these hills and valleys.

Of course, once I got in there, I realized I could have accurately predicted a lot of what I was seeing.

As you'd expect this time of year, the grass is still green from the spring rains.

And all the natural beauty that this area is famous for was well represented, including golden flowers blooming underfoot,

and golden flowers blooming overhead.

When you go, if you look carefully, you might spot the delicate purple flowers of the wild pea plant,

and even if you don't look carefully, there's no way you'll miss the yucca stalks blossoming pale and stately against the sky.

But there will be some surprises too. Each time you crest a hill you won't know exactly what to expect. Perhaps there will be a dozen more hills rolling out before you,

Or maybe you'll drop down into a shady lane,

with a babbling brook.

You might be surprised by the vivid colors of lichen on rock echoing the wild flowers in the fields.

You might suddenly step onto a uniquely shaped bridge,

or find yourself climbing up hill to tackle a matched pair of them.

With all the twists and turns of this trail as it rises and falls through the park, you may start to think you have the place all to yourself. Most of the time you just can't see far enough ahead or behind yourself to get an accurate assessment of the population on the trail. This, perhaps, is when you may start to talk out loud to yourself, or hum a little song, or begin to tell you innermost secrets to your faithful dog who is trotting along in front of you (on her leash, of course.) The surroundings are so beautiful and peaceful, they invite a release of inner feelings, they encourage the personal expressions of poetry and music.

They also hide the impending appearance of other hikers...and folks just hanging out on the hillside reading a book, painting the landscape or just enjoying the view. So try to keep your mouth shut, if you don't want to embarrass yourself, and maybe startle the natives

or bother the bees.

The whole hike, if you stick to the outside loop until you find yourself back in the parking lot, is about 3.5 miles. The trail is pretty narrow, so you've got to walk single file, and it's pretty hot in the middle of the day, so you've got to bring some water. The hills are steep enough to bring a little interest and challenge to your adventure, but not enough to be treacherous or daunting. In general, it's just an ideal outing for nature lovers or just anyone who appreciates fresh air and beautiful views.

(Unless you suffer from pollen-triggered allergies. I don't know what is growing out there that isn't growing in town, but my poor friends were sneezing their heads off by the time we returned to the cars.)

Thank goodness, I don't have allergies. So, I just fell in love with this trail. And now that I had walked it...I couldn't wait to RUN it! It seemed perfect, a great distance, a good number of hills, a technically challenging but achievable terrain.

So I went back the next week. This time, I didn't just bring the right shoes, I brought NEW shoes, that I got for FREE at GH Sports.

This is a locally owned store right here in SLO and it's great for athletic gear. They sell clothes they actually make on-site. If you want to see their sewing shop, just ask for directions to the have to walk past the machines in order to get there. They also carry a wide variety of running shoes, have a treadmill and video machine in the show room so they can correctly assess your gait, and their sales people are all very knowledgeable and generous with their time and energy. And, they keep your name and purchasing history on file...using a little index card in a metal box - so old school!...and when you buy your 10th pair of shoes, you get the 11th one free.

Partly because they were free, and partly because Mizuno recently changed to a lighter mesh upper on the toe box of the Waverunner model that I've been wearing faithfully for years, I thought I'd take a chance and try something different. I have a problem with the new mesh. Yes, it lets in more breeze...which is nice for hot feet after a few miles in the sun...but is really terrible at keeping the sand out of your shoes when you are running on a trail near the ocean. I'm not sure which is more challenging, running in soft dunes, or emerging onto the pavement and trying to continue running with half a cup of sand sloshing around inside each shoe.

I don't know what kind these new shoes are. They say "INOV" on the side...with a little logo that looks like a bare foot next to the name. The underside boasts about it's trademarked "fascia band" in the instep and "meta-flex" at the ball. All I know is, they feel wide and flat compared to my other shoes. When I am standing still, they practically make me feel like I am standing bare-footed, which I understand is the hot new trend in the philosophy of distance running.

It makes some sense to me. When I am training for a long race, and slowly adding mileage to my weekly runs, it's not my lungs or my legs that get tired during the last long mile. It's not even my mind, most of the time. It's my feet that get exhausted and start to hurt. The theory, as I understand it, is that all these cushiony, protective shoes that we wear are actually causing the muscles in our feet to atrophy, when what we need to be doing is making them stronger. So those funny looking Vibram Five Finger shoes...or whatever they are called...and shoes like these INOVs are supposed to let your feet get stronger along with your legs.

Unlike the 5 finger slip-on thingees which I cannot imagine ever wearing with anything other than a bathing suit, my new trail runners put some serious protection and traction between my tootsies and the trail. The inside of the shoe might be light on contour, and the sides might be low on structure, but the soles of these shoes are serious! They look like they were inspired by a pair of cleats. And front of the shoe suggests a past life as a steel toed boot.

I just couldn't wait to break them in at Johnson Ranch. And that turned out to be not such a great idea.

For one, the soft green hills that seemed to slope gently upward when I was walking them suddenly got a whole lot steeper when I was trying to run them.

And the frequent changes in direction that seemed so interesting add a whole extra dimension to a training jog. Suddenly I realized that there really aren't many flat stretches on this course. You are always running either up hill or down hill, without a break to catch your breath!

Unless you count the few times that the trail takes you along the side of the hill. At these moments, you only have to focus on not falling OFF the trail, because the dirt is so steeply banked that one misstep might cause you to totter off into the fields or gullies below.

And did I mention that it's rocky? When you're taking your sweet time, sure, it's fun to notice the pretty colors on the rocks. But when you're trying to keep your heart rate up and maintain some speed, all you have time to notice is that there are an awful lot of them, and that they are very hard and have extremely rough surfaces.

This is especially noticeable if you have new shoes one, and if those shoes express an only slightly obstructed ambition to be a pair of cleats.

You don't realize how much clearance there is under your foot every time you step over a root or a branch or a you? Most of the time, you just pick your foot up from where it is and place it down where you want it. Your amazing brain does such a good job on judging the distance between your body and the objects in your path...and it so accurately accounts for the extra space needed for the bottom-side bulk of your footwear...that you only ever trip when you cease to pay attention to the path...or when your vision is obscured by darkness or opaque objects.

OR, when the size and shape of your shoe is different than the one you are used to! That is the situation I was in...but why would I anticipate that being a problem. It's not like these new shoes were THAT much different that my old ones. I mean, they are still running shoes...not high heels or roman sandals. The variance is probably less than a centimeter.

But I think my brain must be calculating the clearance needed on each step right down to the micro-meter. And I had switched the specifications of my footgear and forgotten to re-calibrate my neurons.

The result was painful.

The first time I tripped and slammed up against a boulder with my shin I thought it was just dumb luck. (Emphasis on dumb.) I picked my self up and ran a few more steps.

The second time I tripped I fell into the dust, skidded on my hands, and slipped sideways several feet down hill and into the grass. I blamed it on the dog running too close and confusing my perception of the micro-topography.

But the third time, when I landed in gravel and ended up with a throbbing ankle, a bleeding knee and shredded palms I realized what was happening. I was tripping over my own feet! Or, rather, I was tripping over my own shoes. I'm not sure which is funnier or more embarrassing.

To compensate, I started running with my knees high up in front of me, giving extra clearance to ever stick, twig or blade of grass in my way.

And when I got to tired to keep taking giant steps, I started taking smaller steps. I didn't fall again, but I did start scuffing my shoes on the trail. I did that for a while...scuff, scuff, scuff...until suddenly, my brain seemed to have adjusted to the new shoes, and I didn't scruff anymore. I just looked at the path in front of me and magically stepped onto it.

It's funny how we don't notice all the amazing little details of how our brain and body works together until a glitch shows up in the system.

Happily, my glitch fixed itself and even thought the run was as challenging as it was beautiful, I enjoyed it very very much.

I hope you get a chance to explore it when you are in the area next.

(And I hope you remember to check for ticks when you finish...I found one crawling up my neck as I was driving home! Ugh!)

Kicking it in SLO

When I started this blog I thought I'd be writing every week about all the things that are unique to this area...the gorgeous hikes, the beautiful beaches, the rolling vineyards and diverse wildlife. Of course, I write about those things sometimes...but today I want to tell you about something really fun we did last Sunday afternoon...that we could have done just about anywhere...if the weather was tolerable and we could find the right group of people.

We accepted an invitation to gather at a little park in SLO and play kickball! The friend who invited us is someone we don't know very well...and the rest of them were complete we really didn't know what we were getting into. K suggested that they might be real serious athletes...dressed in gym clothes and chugging gatorade. Or, she thought, they might be a bunch of fun loving ex-frat boys...touring the bases in baggy jeans and celebrating each home run with a beer bong.

Turns out, they were more of a stripy-socked, suspender-wearing, neon mohawk crowd. We couldn't have been more delighted. And the beverage of choice...icy white russians in red plastic cups.

I stuck to water, and to make up for my 30 year history of totally sucking at team sports, really focused on helping my team win! (Which we did.) But other people were a lot more relaxed. Which was good...because despite my best efforts I still messed up a lot and it's nice to have people laugh good naturedly and pat you on the back when you when make mistakes.

On of the most dramatic moments of the game came when on of the outfielders saw a ball sailing through the air straight towards her. We all watched as she mentally prepared for catching the ball neatly with one hand. At the last moment, she must have decided she wouldn't be able to do it. So, she let go of her cocktail, and caught the ball in her two free hands at the exact moment her cup hit the ground in a big splash of ice cubes and cream liquor.

I wish I had a picture of that!

But I was having too much fun to take many pictures. Here is one...and you can see K standing out there ready to catch the ball if it gets kicked toward her. You can also see her drink set a "safe" distance away.

There was a beautiful blue and white sky above us for most of the afternoon. And, similar to almost any spot in SLO, we were surrounded by rolling, undeveloped hills in every direction. It couldn't have been a more pleasant day, or more pleasant spot. Except for the ten minutes when clouds poured in, the temperature dropped by what felt like 15 degrees, and it started to rain down on us.

And every one kept playing, despite the rain and sudden darkening of the sky. Maybe the alchohol was keeping everyone else warm and they didn't even notice the change in the weather? I don't know. But I loved that we kept at it. And, before long, the nice day came back.

After the game, most of the players headed across the street to have a barbeque. K and I headed home so I could start getting ready for my job interview on Tuesday.

But on the way, we drove through the Laguna Lake neighborhood. This is a section of SLO that is about as close as you can get to Los Osos and still live in town. There is a house for sale that we can't even begin to think about being able to afford...but we like to look at it on-line. The back yard faces the lake, with a breathtaking backdrop of fields and hills behind it. The front of the house is nice too...see?

I feel pretty committed to living in Los Osos...but I guess living here wouldn't hurt my feelings too bad! And we'd be a lot closer to the kickball games.

But, unless we win the lottery (which we won't, because K promised to stop buying tickets when I pointed out to her for the umpteenth time that she never checks to see if she got a winning one or not) I guess we'll be staying here in our little blue house with the red door for a while longer.

P.S. I totally bombed on that job interview. I think the manager and I just weren't a good fit for each other, so I guess it's all for the best.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Just a couple of reasons to love Avila

Here's what you do when you want a day at the beach, but it's a little to foggy or slightly too cool or a bit to breezy here in Los Osos or on the North County beaches at Morro Bay and head south!

I often say that we live right where southern California turns into northern California. Head up to Cambria from here, and you'll see beautiful peaked and craggy shores built from rock and twisted cypress trees. If you drive just a little bit further, you'll reach Big Sur, and all the dramatic views that region is famous for. I think this aspect of SLO county is my favorite.

But sometimes, you really just want a little fun in the sun. That's when you go down to Pismo and the other "5 cities" beaches. (I believe the other 4 cities are Grover Beach, Shell Beach, Arroyo Grande and Avila...but I'm not sure.) That's where you'll find bouncy girls in bikinis and suntanned boys in board shorts playing volley ball in the sand. Of course, it's still too cold to get in the ocean for long without a wet suit, but the air is warm enough for people to lay out and "work on their tans." (Do people still do that? When I lay out in the sun, I do it because it feels so good...but I am wearing 70 spf all over!)

My favorite beach down South is the one between the Avila Pier and the San Luis Pier. The sand is light and find...not rough and pebbley like the one at Spooner's Cove. And, because of the way the shoreline curves, this beach faces due south, and the sand soaks up the sun all day long. Bring your flip flops because sometimes it's too hot to walk very far barefoot.

The road runs right past the beach, but it is raised up quite a bit, so that the beach is protected by a steep bank. The road itself is hugged by high green hills on it's other side, so when you are down by the water, you are very protected from the wind if it is coming from the east, west, or north. Of course, if it is coming from the south, it will pour in off the water and there's no way to avoid that...but most days, it isn't.

Most days, when it's too chilly for beach-bunnies farther up the coast, it is PERFECT down here.

But, the very best part about this beach is that it is one big dog park! We love taking Piper there so she can run around off-leash. Everyone is very friendly, we've never had an incident with another dog there, and because of the steep bank up to the road...the animals have very little opportunity to run out into traffic.

Here is Piper looking very dignified, with the moored sailboats behind her.

And here she is with beach goers and the Avila pier in the distance.

Another great thing about going down to this beach is that you can stop at the Avila Farm Store on the way home. (I'm not sure that is the real official name of the place, but that is what I call it.) It's right off the exit from the 101, and really worth visiting.

They have a petting zoo that gives me mixed feelings.

I love looking at the pot-bellied donkeys
and feeding the miniature cows

But some of the other animals just look tired and dirty. It's hard to know if they mind their small spaces or not...but I think they probably do.

The store itself is really a compound of small buildings. One serves ice-cream and houses all kinds of old-fashioned candy. Another is like a farmer's market with overflowing bins of fresh local produce, and tempting baked goods. A third has prepared products that you really can't find many other places. German fiesta mix, for example. I don't even know what that is, but I want some.

I would like to tell you all about the other great things about this area: the Bob Jones Trail, the hot springs, the San Luis Pier, the Friday night farmer's market, whale cave and the snow cone stand...but that will have to wait until next time.

I'm leaving in a few minutes for Santa Barbara. I'll try to take some pictures so I let you know what it's like down there. I guess that will have to wait til the time AFTER next.

If I am every going to catch up with all the things there are to tell you about on the Central Coast, I am going to have to start writing every day, instead of once a week.

I'm not going to have time to do that, though...because I have a job interview on Tuesday...and I KNOW I'm going to get this one. Wish me luck and send good thoughts at 4pm, Pacific time.

I'll let you know how it goes!