More Californians hitting the road for Labor Day weekend

What? You mean you’re still here? Get a move on, will ya? Take to the open road and channel your inner Kerouac or Clark Griswold. Just leave, already.

Friday, of course, marks the unofficial start of the traditional last big bash of summer, Labor Day weekend. If you’re working, then perhaps you need to refine your calling-in-sick acting chops. Even so, there are still three days of hedonistic excess before that bittersweet Tuesday when you return to the grind and your kids trudge off to school with sharpened pencils in shiny new backpacks.

Yet, this summer has been something of a challenge for vacationers. Fires. An earthquake. The drought. Hurricane-induced massive waves in Orange County. We Californians have dealt with everything short of a locust invasion and frogs falling from the sky. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were last seen heading up I-5, bearing down on Elk Grove. It’s enough to make you succumb to the inertia of a “staycation,” hunkering down in front of the tube for the final days of “The Simpsons” marathon on FXX.

Not to worry, though: Your fellow travelers are planning to hit the road with impunity this weekend, according to the prognosticators at AAA Northern California. The travel organization’s annual Labor Day forecast survey predicts that 3.9 million Californians will venture more than 50 miles from their homes over Labor Day weekend, a 1.6 percent increase over last year.

They will be aided by a price decrease at the pump, with Sacramento’s average retail gasoline prices at $3.83 per gallon, a more than an 11-cent drop from last month. They also will be spurred on by a favorable weekend weather forecast – 90s in the Valley, high 70s in Lake Tahoe and the low 70s in San Francisco.

So, no excuses, right?

But what about the seemingly endless succession of fires (Oakhurst, Weaverville, Lassen National Forest, San Diego), or last Sunday’s 6.0 Napa earthquake, or all of those parched lakes whose bottoms look as craggy as Keith Richards’ mug?

“It’s just part of living in California,” said Cynthia Harris, AAA spokewoman. “We know these natural catastrophes can happen at the most unexpected times. And we know the drought is serious. But you have to realize that the fires affected just certain spots of the state. And the earthquake affected basically just Napa. Unless it had been a magnitude 7.2 (quake) that caused a lot of devastation with bridges down and highways closed, earthquakes don’t deter travelers.”

The Aug. 18 Junction fire, in Oakhurst near the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, only briefly detoured visitors, and Harris said that even last year’s devastating Rim fire – the third-largest in California history – didn’t dissuade too many travelers.

“They just went somewhere else,” she said.

There’s always a “somewhere else” in a state as large as California. Fact is, though, most people do not need to alter plans due to nature’s whims.

Except for the the 116 red-tagged buildings in the historic downtown, the Napa wine country region has emerged mostly unscathed. According to the website, 95 percent of all the region’s wineries and restaurants are open, and only three of 143 lodging properties remain closed in the quake’s aftermath. Thursday, the City Winery at the Historic Napa Valley Opera House reopened with a bluegrass concert featuring David Grisman.

“We were shaken but not stirred,” said Carol Reber, chief marketing officer of Duckhorn Vineyards and Paraduxx Winery. “We very fortunate to have incurred very little damage, save for a few broken bottles here and there. Unfortunately, (cable news) just keeps showing the same (footage) of historic buildings in downtown. But, really, the Napa harvest is on. It’s three weeks earlier than normal. It’ll be a great weekend to be up here. But you should’ve already made a reservation.”

What most Napa businesses geared toward tourism have dealt with is the false perception that the wine country has been decimated. Shawn Sparks, of the Napa Valley Wine Country Tours, said she’s spent considerable time on the phone, telling callers “not to worry, we’re fine. I tell them, ‘It’s all good.’ ”

The popular Napa Valley Wine Train, which wends its way through the valley and makes stops at wineries, missed only two days, post-earthquake, due to a power outage.

“We started rolling out of the station again on Tuesday,” said Andrea Guzman, the wine train’s manager of promotions and partnerships. “The infrastructure – the rails, bridges, trestles – all stayed intact. We expect this to be one of our biggest weekends of the year, like it always is.”

Likewise, business owners in Oakhurst, the southern gateway to Yosemite, weathered the threat from the Junction fire that burned 612 acres and destroyed 47 structures, and say they now are operating as if the nightmarish evacuation amid plumes of smoke had never occurred last week.

“The smoke didn’t even last very long,” said Molly Burg, director of operations of Erna’s Elderberry House, one of the Central Valley’s top restaurants and Oakhurst’s most noted tourist spot. “The tourists? They were gone for a couple of days; then they came back. We were unaffected.”

Most assuredly affected by the statewide drought emergency is tourism at Northern California lakes. Yet even the two lakes arguably hardest hit by the drought, Folsom and Oroville, remain open and operating boat launches on a somewhat limited basis.

Folsom Lake has two launch ramps still open, according to Rich Preston, acting state parks superintendent for the Goldfields district. Preston added that the mandatory 5 mph limit for boats is not in effect, because the lake level has not dropped below 400 feet. It was at 401 feet as of Thursday.

“We’re almost there, but I’m anticipating we’ll get through the weekend without (reducing boat speed),” Preston said.

Ken Christensen, owner of the Folsom Lake Marina, said many boaters just assume the lake is “too low to use” and stay away this late in the year. “I expect this weekend to be busy but not crowded at all. There’s no reason not to use the lake.”

Lake Oroville, in worse shape with paved ramps closed, now has two temporary gravel launchways available for boaters using four-wheel-drive vehicles to tow.

Farther north, at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, 9 miles west of Redding, there are no boating restrictions. In fact, Vicki Barnhorst, marketing manager of Oak Bottom Marina at the site, said the lake is less than 2 feet below full and that the campground and marina are full as well.

“If you want to come out,” she said. “you should probably leave now. It’s going to get crowded.”

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