Happier trails to you – off the beaten path

A 153-room hacienda-style hotel surrounds the Olympic-size pool at Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant in Coalinga. If you don’t mind the aroma of cows, it’s a relaxing spot to vacation halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento.
A 153-room hacienda-style hotel surrounds the Olympic-size pool at Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant in Coalinga. If you don’t mind the aroma of cows, it’s a relaxing spot to vacation halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

Essayist Rebecca Solnit, on whom I harbor a major intellectual crush, lives by a writerly credo I sought to emulate this year while pounding the pavement, scaling peaks and trying to get key cards to work in hotel rooms on the intrepid travel beat:

“Never turn down an adventure without a good reason.”

So when your boss forwards an email to you from a San Francisco hotel offering a package including free use of Google Glass, the wearable, interactive facial technology that has provoked violence on the tech haves by the annoyed have-nots, you cannot beg off.

When your other boss thinks it might be a good idea to head to the far northeastern part of the state and spend the better part of two days underground in lava caves like some pasty-faced troll, dodging bats and fending off serotonin-sapping bouts of claustrophobia, you gulp and submit.

When a frugal-minded colleague mentions his affinity for staying at hostels up and down the coast, you tamp down your aversion to close, communal living among those with varying senses of what constitutes proper personal hygiene, and make the booking.

And when you’re walking down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and just happen to pass a building featuring a poster of a bed with ominous leather foot and arm restraints and a marquee stating, “PSYCHIATRY An Industry of Death Museum,” do you bow your head and quicken your pace to walk on by? No, reader, you don’t. You keep your eyes peeled and pen poised and see what in the name of Sigmund Freud is going on in there.

Had I played it safe and stuck to the well-trod travel destinations – that leisurely weekend in Carmel, the frenetic sojourn to Disneyland, the week-long vacation sabbaticals to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite, the day trip to Napa – I would’ve assuredly had a good time.

Those are wonderful vacation spots, jewels of the Golden State, certainly worthy of revisiting. But shouldn’t we constantly be on the outlook for the new and novel places and experiences that surprise and delight, that challenge your assumptions or spark an interest you didn’t know you had?

Something, in short, that will make a good story, that won’t bore your Facebook “friends” when you post the obligatory status update.

That’s why in 2014 I doffed my clothes at a hot springs and donned a hat and boots at a cowboy poetry gathering; endured dirty looks from locals in Bolinas and come-ons from the madame at an alien-themed brothel in Nevada; slept in the same room with German tourists at Point Reyes and blissfully alone on a rented yacht on Long Beach harbor; got beaten with tree branches in a 185-degree Russian sauna in San Francisco and was treated to the visual assault of 2,500 paintings on velvet in L.A.’s Chinatown; took tours that upended my olfactory (Sriracha sauce) and visual (Oregon Vortex) senses; and then recovered on the sands of Mission, Avila and Venice beaches.

It’s been a whirlwind year that’s seen the company car’s odometer spinning.

Shall I set up the projector, bring out the fondue pot and share?


You know how they say the journey is the destination? Sometimes, just staying in a hotel, or a reasonable facsimile, is adventure enough:

▪ Airstreams: You don’t need to buy an Airstream trailer (good thing, too, since they sell for between $40,00 to $95,000) or even rent one; just make it your hotel room. A half-dozen hotels/motor courts/RV parks rent Airstreams by the night. They gleam like a silver bullet with rivets on the outside and are redecorated in midcentury modern design inside. It’s not not cheap, though: Most Airstream units, even the tiny 16-foot “Bambi” trailers, charge in excess of $200 a night. Recommended spots: the Auto Camp in downtown Santa Barbara, the Flying Flags RV Park in Buellton and Metro Hotel in Petaluma.

▪ Yacht: You don’t need to pop your polo shirt collar and speak in a Thurston Howell lockjaw manner, but you do feel privileged when you stay on a 40-foot yacht anchored at Dock 5 of Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach, across the harbor from the Queen Mary and next to the Aquarium of the Pacific, near scads of restaurants and a jaunt from the trendy vintage shops on Fourth Street’s “Retro Row.” Dockside Boat & Bed rents out six yachts for overnight guests (cost range: $175-$275) but, sorry, you cannot fire up the engine and sail off to Catalina. You won’t be giving up luxury: Accoutrements include two satellite TV sets, iPod docking station, fridge and microwave, central air and heating, two bathrooms and a walk-in shower.

▪ Caboose: Dunsmuir’s history as a railroad town, which includes a museum at the Amtrak station and vintage boxcars placed around town as other cities would erect statues, is typified by the thoroughly retro-charming Railroad Park Resort, where you can sleep in a caboose and dine in a Pullman car. Railroad buffs cherish the chance to explore the cab of a rare 1927 Willamette Shay steam engine. But what draws most visitors are the rooms fashioned out of old Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Great Northern or Erie cabooses that encircle the tree-studded property, near Little Castle Creek and dwarfed by the jutting spires of Castle Crags. A pool and hot tub is a nod to modernity, but the site really does feel as if you’ve chosen to hole up in a railroad yard for the night.

▪ Art Hotel: Reno, home base for many Burning Man denizens, is home to the first hotel exclusively designed by and made for so-called “Burners.” Local artists, with help from architects, have taken a scuzzy single-occupancy-room flophouse in downtown and transformed it into a swirling surreal “experience” called the Morris Burner Hotel. Rooms include: “The Rabbit Hole,” an “Alice in Wonderland” takeoff; “Goddess Room,” aswirl with a purple and lavender Gaia mural; “Cuban Gangsta Room,” all blood red and black; and the “Sparkle Pony Room,” all Pepto-Bismol pink. Pay 30 or so bucks a night for the room, and they might even throw in a mini-concert or art installation out back.

▪ Lighthouse: OK, you aren’t actually sleeping in the historic lighthouse in Point Arena; you’re in one of the lighthouse keeper’s rooms right on the jutting point of the continent, with the federally preserved Stornetta Public Lands right outside your door. Outside, the wind may be howling and making the shutters crash and clank, but you’re snug indoors with a fireplace, kitchen, living room and king bed. Somehow, you don’t think this is the way lighthouse keepers lived back in the day, but you’re fine with that. You’ll pay for the solitude, though: Quarters range from $185 to $320 a night.

▪ Harris Ranch: Who, like, stops at Harris Ranch? Isn’t that just the pit stop you take halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento on Interstate 5? Don’t you just get some gas, use the facilities, grab some fresh-made jerky to go? Some, however, wisely choose to break up the long drive and sit a spell in this hotel and restaurant hybrid near Coalinga. The hotel certainly isn’t as well-know as the restaurants serving Harris Ranch beef, but it features rooms with patios that open up to a pool. Rooms, too, are built to limit freeway noise. What cannot be avoided, if the winds blow a certain direction, is the eau de bovine coming 4 miles north from the cattle ranch abutting the interstate, the place from which those succulent cuts of prime rib or filet mignon at the three Harris Ranch restaurants originate.


Listing the usual museum suspects – the Getty, de Young, the Huntington – is too easy. Better, occasionally, to seek out the small, eccentric, folk-art museums:

▪ Bunny Museum, Pasadena: 1933 Jefferson Drive is not just another modest Spanish stucco house on a sleepy suburban street. Inside are 30,000 (and counting) bunny keepsakes, everything from plush animals to figurines, rabbit portraits and books, flags and hutches and framed photographs. Every inch of space is laden with bunny ephemera. The real attraction, though, is resident and curator Candace Frazee, who, in exchange for a head of broccoli for her real rabbits, will tell a hare-raising tale of how and why she collects. One warning: She wields a full complement of puns. She recently announced that the museum is officially a nonprofit and will move into bigger digs perhaps as early as the end of 2015.

▪ San Quentin Prison Museum: San Quentin State Prison, just over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in Marin County, holds some of the state’s most dangerous felons. It also has a museum, curated by an ex-journalist, that gives the inmates, as well as the guards, the wardens and the building itself, their due. California’s first prison, opened 162 years ago and looking every day its age, San Quentin’s museum has wings devoted to executions, from hangings to the gas chamber to lethal injections, with models of the implements of death and, occasionally, even the items themselves. Most fascinating are examples of ingeniously crafted inmate weapons, all manner of shivs and clubs, homemade hash pipes and even MacGyvered hypodermic needles.

▪ Elvis outside of Reno: Elvis ephemera, in all its over-the-top and wretched excess, all the sequined white-leather jump suits and gaudy jewelry, can be found at … a truck stop-slash-mini-casino in Sparks, Nev.? It’s worth a stop at Sierra Sid’s casino and Travel Center Plaza, just outside Reno, to check out The King’s rings and watches and pens, everything gold- and diamond-encrusted. More pointedly, three gleaming pistols are propped up for maximum exposure and a monogrammed “EP” leather holster. Alas, none of these pistols was the one that Elvis used to mortally wound a TV set in Vegas.

▪ Velveteria, Los Angeles: Yes, there is the requisite brushed velvet painting of Dogs Playing Poker, but that’s only one of more than 2,500 velvet works on display in this gallery-cum-museum that last year moved from Portland to L.A.’s Chinatown district. The avuncular Carl Baldwin is encyclopedic in his velvet canvas knowledge. He enthuses about legendary velvet artists, such as 94-year-old CeCe Rodriguez, but in the next breath shows you a portrait of a velvet Miley Cyrus in mid-twerk.

The Great Outdoors

Yosemite, you know. Same for Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada. Try these outdoors options, one of which even takes you to a different world:

▪ Lava Beds National Monument: When you’re on hands and knees crawling through a cave called Hercules Leg, totally dark and a climate-controlled 55 degrees, you still cannot help but break into a sweat and fear inhumation. Sounds like fun, right? It is. Lava Beds features no fewer than 100 developed caves formed more than 11,000 years ago through the hardening of lava tubes. Above ground, of course, scattered around the 72 square miles of the erstwhile Medicine Lake Volcano, were people camping and hiking, visiting sites of the 1873 Modoc War and spotting waterfowl at the adjoining Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge.

▪ Extra Terrestrial Highway: Truth seekers, convinced that the government has conducted super-secret missions revolving around alien technology and even harbored extraterrestrials on what by all rational accounts is just a regular Air Force base in the vast Mojave Desert, hit the road (Highway 375) in search of “Men in Black,” or little green men or just the beating heart of Area 51. It’s a campy day trip from Las Vegas, but you don’t need to camp. Rather, stay at the Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, the biggest “town” in this no-man’s land. Brave souls can take a dirt road 13.8 miles until it ends at a fence, where guards in camo gear in trucks on a hillside are authorized to shoot if you proceed farther.

▪ The Lost Coast: This is one of the few places left in California, deep in rugged Humboldt County, where you can truly lose yourself in solitude, especially if you take a shuttle van from the area’s main enclave, Shelter Cove, into the thicket of the King Range and then hike up and over the peak, down to the beach and along the rocky and black-sand “trail” back to Shelter Cove. It’s a 16-mile, point-to-point trip and worth every step. Make sure, though, to time the trek right. Otherwise, you might hit the beach – the final 5.2 miles – at high tide and be stuck for an hour or two before the tides recede. Then again, there’s no more peaceful place at which to be stranded.

▪ Mount Wilson Climb: Who says you can’t get back to nature in SoCal? The hardest but most scenic way to ascend to Mount Wilson’s observatory and rows of communication towers is to traverse the Mount Wilson Trail, a winding 14.3-mile (round trip), mostly single-track trek through pine, cedar and oak trees that starts in the bedroom community of Sierra Madre. Fair warning: You’ll climb more than 5,000 feet in the roughly 7 miles to the summit and, though it’s often shaded, bring plenty of water. Climbing Mount Wilson is a point of pride to many Angelenos, judging by their Yelp posts raving about their accomplishment. For a few hours, you forget you’re in L.A.

The Great Indoors

Then again, you can always enjoy yourself in repose, safely ensconced indoors – though, we warn, your heart rate might soar from too much fun:

▪ Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, Nev.: Elko is usually snowy and cold in January, which is why cowboys come in off the range and recite their deepest thoughts about this noble life, with more than a dash of humor. Urbanites, who punch time clocks rather than cows, will find a trip to Elko in January not merely a chance to dine on the town’s trove of Basque restaurants but to glimpse a truly American subcultural both clinging to tradition and embracing change in hopes of staving off extinction.

▪ Biosphere 2, Oracle, Ariz.: It’s quite an experience to step into an airlocked chamber and be hermetically sealed under glass, like peaches canned for the winter. A two-hour tour of Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert outside of Tucson lets you wander through man-made series of biomes that include a rain forest, desert, savanna, ocean and orchard. Back in 1991, a team of scientists lived there for two years as an experiment in existing in “a completely materially self-sustaining enclosed artificial environment.”

▪ TV Show Taping, Burbank: Getting free tickets to shows shot at Warner Bros. Television Studios is as easy as a mouse click. But actually getting in to watch a sitcom taping is harder. It means standing in long lines, with no guarantee of admission. Once inside, you are instructed to laugh on command, over and over, as scenes go through many “takes.” I sat through a five-hour taping of the half-hour show “2 Broke Girls.” Seeing how the sausage is made on the small screen may not be heart-pounding, but edifying nonetheless.

▪ East Brother Island: There’s a cute bed-and-breakfast on a bump of an island in the San Francisco Bay, visible any time you drive on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The East Brother Island Light Station has been turned into a Victorian house that features gorgeous views of the bay and mainland from your room. You can also tour the remnants of the lighthouse that operated back in the day, including a piercing fog horn. Oh, speaking of fog, you’ll mostly stay indoors on this trip. The weather is often uncomfortable, and there’s not much to do outdoors on the tiny island, save a picnic table or two. Many couples are just fine with never leaving their rooms.

▪ Miyazaki Bath House: Walnut Grove, which we tend to bypass by staying on Interstate 5, boasts an oasis where time slows, stress recedes, and healing waters beckon. The Miyazaki Bath House and Gallery in the town’s Japantown area is believed to be, in the words of co-owner Montserrat Wassam, “the only functioning historic Japanese bathhouse left in the country.” The original 1916 building has been restored to look much like it did back in the day – only not as scruffy. With two baths, warm and cold, a steam room, a tatami area for tea service and meditation, and an eclectic gallery that features local artists, a visitor can feel transported, blissfully removed from quotidian concerns.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.