A California diary… A group of six on tour in 2007
8 days in northern California… day two
The Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, and a drive to the north


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on January 5, 2008. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Day two, Sunday, October 21, 2007

When writing these travel entries, I have a notebook or two (or more… in fact, usually more) that I bring along with me. Might be stored in the backpack, could be in the car, and occasionally it’s an end of the day in the hotel kind of thing. Whatever. I take notes.

It is my tendency to try and insert something into these essays for every note I record. I’d like to think that for the most part, they make sense. I know that isn’t true. For instance, every so often there will be an inside joke, delivered with an understood wink and a nod, recorded for our memories. Other times, the note is so short and vague I can’t recall what it is supposed to remind me of. In any case, including all the thoughts can absolutely create some long entries.

And yet because of that habit of mine I have a way to remember… when I think about Chicago, the woman that loved the “Yankees suck” chant at Wrigley Field and called her friend, who was also at the game, to discuss it… the day in southern California at Universal Studios that was filled with notes about virtually every ride at the theme park and finished with burritos the size of a puppy… trips to Florida, including being part of a dozen orange and green shirts that were recognized and praised in the theme parks… and while I’ll never forget it, I get to share a moment in Las Vegas with Richard gazing at two golden retrievers.

These moments may not just be magical for me and my co-conspirators. Perhaps you benefit when we mention restaurants, stores, and other destinations. Sure… we’re sharing our opinions and experiences from specific days. I certainly hope you’re enjoying the stories -- perhaps you tune in regularly for the exploits of Ellen & Richard, and can’t wait for them to travel again.

The thing is…

I hope you’ll allow me some leeway in beginning this particular entry of our California diary. It’s about hotel breakfasts. And while it’s a bit of a stretch for today, I’m also setting something up for the future… for these San Francisco diary entries… and for our group. Today, you get a start revolving around ham and cheese omelets. Later, when we get to Wednesday… Thursday… Friday… Saturday, you’ll get to compare it against the Pancake Nazi… Mike’s food affair… IHOP and the senior citizen discount… and Mike not even having a chance to say goodbye.

It’s worth it.

(I promise.)

I’m not necessarily one to love or hate free hotel breakfasts. If you’re only staying at a hotel for a night or two… they’re usually pretty good, all factors considered. And it almost always beats packing yourself into the car and moving along to the nearest drive thru.

Muffins… maybe a honey bun… some juice and coffee. Good stuff. Or… maybe… just maybe… you find a place that offers hot cereal or the use of a toaster. Toss in a sippy-cup-cover so you can bring your hot chocolate or coffee on the road, and all is good. (Nirvana? Places with waffle-makers.)

If you’re staying in the same place on a longer trip, they offer you a great option that repeats the gift-giving morning after morning. Especially for families. Getting the young kids dressed is taxing enough… eating in the room is cheaper than any local place on tourist boulevard, but thanks to the young ones you’re drained before you even open the door to leave.

Ultimately… let’s face facts… they’re free for a reason. It’s easy for the same buffet of four cereals and powdered donuts and pulpy juice to wear on you.


As I said… for the most part, it works.

Two things about the breakfast at the Quality Suites:

Number one – Eggs made to order. (A limited order, but made to order.)

Number two – Just wait until you see what happened on the two days we didn’t just head downstairs and eat at the hotel. Or… what took place during our final two breakfasts at the hotel.

Today though… it’s Sunday morning… day two…

Our group gets together in the hallway and heads down to the dining room. It isn’t large… perhaps seating 20. But they do offer a selection of pastry, toast, juice, coffee and an egg station.

Now… even though there is an order slip to fill out, the eggs aren’t exactly anything by request. It’s almost like selecting “breakfast” in My Cousin Vinny. There’s scrambled, an omelet with ham and cheese, and over easy… medium… or hard. That’s it. But… you do get to pick bacon or sausage on the side. And for now, we’re pretty happy with the eggs and other items.

We hop in the car and Mike fires up the navigation system. He sets it for a small park listed at the Golden Gate Bridge and we’re off. Within seconds the unit is talking to us…

“Turn right in point six miles…”

“Approaching a stay to the left in one point one miles, followed by a right…”

And the thing is great! (I can’t recreate it that well here, but the voice has a pause involved. Different prerecorded snippets being assembled into our directions. So it’s more like: “Approaching a (pause) stay to the left in (pause) one (pause) point (pause) one (pause) miles, followed by a (pause) right…”)

Mike and I decide that if this thing is going to be talking to us all week, it needs a name. We already love the darn thing… and quickly, Mi Luv U is thus christened.

Mi Luv U leads us to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point. It’s a nice area built just across the bay from the city, and immediately after the bridge. The centerpiece of the area these days appears to be the statue of The Lone Sailor.

Overall the location is really good, with a fabulous view, but it has us looking around. See… the bridge is just off to the right… and the bay is kind of a panoramic setting spanning no matter how far you look from one side to the other… and San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, well, they’re all more or less way off to the left. Essentially, there is no way to get that perfect picture of the city with the Golden Gate Bridge into a single shot.

The reason that has us looking around? Because on the other side of the road is the Marin Headlands. And from what we saw driving over the bridge, we should be able to get up there by road, which in turn would place the bridge directly between us and the city, and… long story a bit shorter, give us that shot of the city with the bridge.

We spend a few minutes taking pictures and walking around, and then pack into the car to receive some unsettling news.

Ellen’s tic tacs have been stolen!

After a quick inventory check, she decides that everything else is in her bag… including a $5 bill that was right next to the tic tacs. So the would-be-pickpocket got her mints, but the person missed the money. Oh well… tough for them, good for us… off we go…

Mike gets Mi Luv U set up to bring us to a drive along the Marin Headlands. (I would love to give you great details about the drive, but as near as I can figure out, we crossed over to the area via Alexander Avenue, and headed toward Hawk Hill. I don’t have street by street directions into the area, and the maps I have found don’t fully label the roads. It was the very next exit after leaving the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point area.

I have a side note about Hawk Hill (in part thanks to Norm (you’ll meet him on day 3), and confirmed as I read about the place later on). Apparently the headlands create some incredible weather. From the way the winds come through to the humidity and on into fog and rain and even simply the peninsula shape, it is kind of a stunning place. Part of this includes times when an air current is created that allows birds, such as hawks, falcons and eagles, to soar to incredible heights and cross over the water (where ordinarily, they would have no assisted lift).)

Ellen is chirping away during our drive. It’s kind of funny, because she’s doing part as a mumble, part as deductive reasoning, and part as a complaint. Near as the rest of us can tell, the story she is telling involves her stolen tic tacs and some suspicious looking people that had been watching her leave the car when we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point stop. There were the people on the curb that had parked next to us… the couple across the parking lot that she made eye contact with as our group walked away from the car toward the main viewing overlook… two or three people that seemed to always be somewhat nearby as we moved from the overlook to the statue and such… and one potential pickpocket is described in great detail.

She’s assembled her lineup of suspects, and prepared her leading candidate… but the truly great part is when Mike and I keep getting back to the $5. I ask if any money was taken. “No. I think just my tic tacs.” I ask where the $5 was. “Right next to my tic tacs.” Mike wants to know if she thinks the tic tacs were stolen. “Yes. My tic tacs were stolen.” Which Mike follows-up with pointing out the money was left right there but the tic tacs were gone. Ellen pauses for a moment before agreeing that it does seem strange, but she’s sure they were stolen.

We take several pictures from different places along the road. Just a beautiful setting. And… we avoid some crazy people riding up steep hills on bikes. (Dear lord… bicycles all over the place.)

At the last stop before heading off, Ellen calls out in the back… she’s found her tic tacs… they had fallen under the seat. (So much for the unnamed, but vividly described pickpocket.)

We meander back down the hill and Richard comes up with a name for the Canasta Masta. Thanks to our accidental exploits and investigative work in finding different settings and views, he’s decided that we see more on our trips. And hence… Seemore the giraffe is officially named.

We’re getting ready to move along to Muir Woods, and Mi Luv U is taking us through Sausalito. Lots of “ohhs” and “ahhs” echoing around the van as we drive through the town, but we don’t stop. It doesn’t take us long to eventually reach Muir Woods.

And… well… they don’t have any parking.

Seriously… maybe fifty cars at the main entrance and perhaps another fifty or so at a secondary parking lot a short drive from the entrance. After that, indications are they expect you to park along the side of the road.

After driving around a bit, I go back to the main entrance and drop off everyone except Mike and the two of us take off to park the car. After circling through the secondary lot again, and not seeing anyone heading back from the entrance, I decide I’d rather park the darn car and walk twenty minutes then circle around for forty minutes hoping to get a spot.

Almost done with our walk back to the others, we reach the edge of the main parking lot and my cell phone goes off alerting me of a message. Seems Ellen called to tell me about all the people leaving the main parking area. The girls decided… you know, while they were sitting around, talking, and not walking uphill for a mile or so… that we should have just waited for a spot. Not the greatest of reception for phones out there at Muir Woods folks… and my suggestion is to ignore your friends if you drop them off. (Just park and get inside. Don’t look back at what might have been. Don’t listen when the group that didn’t hike uphill from the parking spot to the entrance starts talking about what the walk must have been like.)

We head inside and start along the walking trail. And… oh… my… god… it is gorgeous. Very hard to describe. We are about a third of the way along the trail that heads out, at a place with the Pinchot Tree, when I try to set up a group picture. I turn around to look for Mike and Terry, only to find them trying to get some pictures of black tail deer nearby.

The trails are very clearly marked and easily covered by foot. The main path was shaded from the sun and… well… the word peaceful really works here. Very peaceful… except for the six people cracking dirty jokes and carrying a stuffed giraffe. (I’d like to share the jokes… but I won’t. However… I do have some videos proving that the group was not shy. You don’t want to know what the girls were saying about some of these trees. Particularly interesting-- on the topic of videos and the lack of shyness -- was a video from later on this day, with Mike and Richard debating one particular swear along the Pacific Coast Highway.)

The walking trail is a beautiful stretch that parallels a stream (and actually… I don’t know that I need to point this out, but between Muir Woods and Yosemite and all the other places with camping and hiking and trails that we visited, I probably should… we are, just about every place we go, walking along what I guess can best be described as the primary visitor’s walking trail). The stream is actually called Redwood Creek. The trail heads out almost north or northwest, and has three or four places to cross over the creek to the path heading south-southeast and back to the entrance. The longer you travel out, the more options like hillside trails and other things tie in to the main walk.

On the southeast journey, we meet Roger the Ranger. We talk to him for a few minutes, and it turns out that he has some ties to our part of the country. During our discussion, he finds out that we have a picnic lunch, and he offers us some friendly advice. Telling us to continue along on the road we used coming in -- instead of backtracking toward Sausalito -- he directs us to Muir Beach, and specifically to a location called the Muir Beach Overlook.

We use his advice. And…


The drive was incredible… particularly some stunning houses we saw off of Seacape Drive. (Go figure… huge windows on the homes.) We arrived to find the area had some people around, but overall it was very quiet.

We moved a picnic table slightly to set ourselves up and out comes the cheese, crackers, wine and chorizo. Seemore is set up with a great view of the surrounding area. And after a fantastic picnic meal, we pack up and set off exploring.

The overlook includes some military defense posts. It also has a great walking ledge out to a point, a view north to Mount Tamalpais, and overall just a brilliant setting.

We hopped back in the van and took off along route 1… the Pacific Coast Highway… heading north. We are rewarded with some spectacular driving… and a curving road along a cliff that encourages the use of a special word (in the video mentioned before). Once we hit Stinson Beach though, route 1 takes a decidedly inland turn. Again, some incredible scenery around us, but we eventually decide to break to the east after passing some Point Reyes signs (we never traveled deeply into the Point Reyes area).

Mike has been playing with our maps and Mi Luv U. So… for instance… he’d program in Stinson Beach while we were out on the Muir Beach Overlook, and, off we went along the PCH. When the road left the coastline, he switched it to the Point Reyes area. If he didn’t have a specific location or address to use, Mike would just pull names off of the map that were near where we wanted to head, look for them on Mi Luv U, and then let her set the driving directions. At this point, we wind up traveling past Samuel P. Taylor State Park and along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. And again… it was an amazing drive.

Foliage! We were seeing foliage!

We eventually wind up arriving in San Rafael, where we stopped for some coffees. (Again Terry… sorry about getting you the mocha frozen thingy and not the caramel frozen whipped cream with extra caramel sauce thingy.)

It’s now just after 4pm. Mike enters Fisherman’s Wharf into Mi Luv U, with the intent being to guide us south along 101, back over the Golden Gate Bridge, and into the vicinity of it for dinner.

We arrive at the wharf… via Mason Street. At this point I’ve meandered through two red lights… missed one “bear left” instruction from Mi Luv U… and overall haven’t impressed with my driving skills. But at the parking meter on Mason Street, I put on a demonstration of parallel parking that redeems the entire day of driving. (At least… I thought so.)

We begin looking around and heading from pier 43-ish toward pier 39. A restroom break is called for, with Terry and I heading out on the dock while the others take off. I start looking out toward Alcatraz, and at a thin fog coming in past the bridge. (Not a classic bay area fog rolling in… just a thin one.) And that’s when I hear it.

Barking and barking and noise.

Sea lions.

They’ve been here since about 1990. Evidently, after the 1989 earthquake, they showed up. Because of their protected status and a decent supply of food in the water, the population expanded, and now between 300 and 900 sea lions populate the docks depending on the time of year. For the Pier 39 tourist attraction, the businesses seem quite happy to keep the sea lions and promote them.

We wander around some of the shops… but it’s a Sunday night, and while it’s packed, things are really winding down. Mike gets a tip on some dining options and leads us back up and out to the pier 45 area. We check out the menu at Sabella & La Torre and head inside.

I don’t have everyone’s meal written down. Mike went with a shrimp salad to begin and Dungeness crab. I believe Ellen had the crab as well. I believe Louise and Terry went with some sort of grilled fish, and I had the chicken parmigiana. The food was ok overall… but here’s the thing. Terry and I split a crab cake appetizer. It was alright. But it wasn’t nearly what we’ve experienced with crab cakes in Maryland… and from the reactions I can recall, the seafood (which I tend to avoid with few exceptions) in general seemed to be good but not outstanding for our group. Good meal… but not one worth recommending.

We get back to the hotel and here’s something I noticed about the room…

Do you head for the drawers of tables and desks when you arrive in a hotel? You know… looking for notepads and pens? When I was a kid you might find stationery, with envelopes… maybe even a postcard. Over time these items disappeared… to the point that you might find one pen and a small notepad, if that.

Here at the Quality Suites you get an official “OfficeMax” pen. Later on in the trip, our rooms will be short on towels, not get facecloths, and have other questions about some elements of service.

Yup… generic OfficeMax pens. Perhaps you can tell a lot about your hotel by the pens they offer. Because in this case they do have them, but once I get home with it I will not be able to use it to make a future reservation.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On day three, we went traveling to some vineyards. And when it comes to wine on any of the days, for a variety of reasons, my notes got a bit sketchy at times. Now… it wasn’t because I was drinking wine that the notes got sketchy. Instead, funny things took place. For example, later in the trip, I was driving… so I didn’t do much tasting. And with people not giving me a ton of feedback on different wines, I didn’t keep the same quality of notes.

That said… this is in no small part a wine trip… so I’ll share what I can. And here on day two… we did try two wines with lunch. If you’re interested…

Did I like it?
Chalk Creek
2005 Sonoma County
Dry and smooth, but seemed short
Yes, and Terry liked it too. My notes don’t say anything about the rest of the group, though I seem to recall Louise liked it.
Chalk Creek
2005 Sonoma County
Dry and a bit sharp, and… do I taste cherries?
The only note I have says I liked it.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com