PICNICKING ON THE I-5
Well, it’s that “over the meadow and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” time of year or in Richard's and my case it’s a “hop a Southwest shuttle, drive the 101, creep along the PCH white cliffs of Big Sur, or meander up the “meadow and woods” of the Interstate 5. Yeh, the I-5. A straight line of boring. An ugly, barren desert landscape that dulls the senses. But beauty is in the eye of the imagination. For us, this road is never boring or ugly because we plan our journey as if it were a drive through the hills of Tuscany or the south of France, complete with a picnic in a beautiful vineyard.
For our latest I-5 trip north to the Sacramento/Bay area for a family pre-holiday reunion, I went to my favorite LA gourmet market (partly because Andy Garcia shops there --- be still my heart) and bought the makings for our picnic: Black Forest ham, sliced aged Jarlsberg, heirloom tomatoes, arugula, an Edmund Fallot imported mustard and freshly baked wheat rolls (fiber) for sandwiches, a couple of bottles of Pelegrino and some lovely champagne grapes. However, not everything in my shopping cart was gourmet. You see, I have this guilty food pleasure that I indulge only on these interstate treks: Reduced Fat Cheez-Its. Why reduced fat? Less “lard,” more cheese, hence – more cheese flavor.
Before we even hit the I-5, I tore open the Cheez-Its box and shoved a handful of these tasty little tidbits into my mouth. I rationalized this barbaric food behavior as one of these trip’s little perks. Not until I’ve had 2 - 3 fists full did I even consider sharing these morsels with Richard. By the time we reached the Grapevine (the mountain ‘pass’ that leads to the San Joaquin Valley) half the box was gone. By the time we reached the pristine lake reservoir atop the Grapevine the Cheez-Its were gone.
As we drove out of the mountain terrain, I once again marveled at the endless miles of moonscape on both sides of the road… distant brownish gray hills and mountains… parched flatland dotted with a few green walnut and citrus groves fed with water stolen from who knows where. Our mouths, already dry from the salty Cheez-Its, got drier. We guzzled down half a bottle of the sparkling Pelegrino as we passed the occasional cow or two grazing on a single tuft of straw-like grass. We drove by the few lonely houses miles apart and made up movie scenarios about who lived there and why. And even after driving this straight “ribbon of highway” over and over again, the sight of sagebrush blowing across the road still sparked my imagination and I pretended to be in an old John Ford western as I pictured Indians on horses atop a distant hill. Little dust cyclones swirled every so often over the sun-baked land. But recently, a few more patches of landscape have become greener. There on the left was a vineyard. There was another one. And, yet another as we eased on down the road. The baby boomers had discovered wine and the valley has jumped on the ‘grapewagon’ turning “The Searchers” into “Sideways.” I yearned for a chilled bottle of chardonnay.
Just as my stomach started to growl we saw the tall palm trees indicating the exit to the Harris Ranch. The Ranch is a major watering hole in the midst of this desert valley… the half-way mark between LA/San Francisco-LA/Sacramento. We parked by the Ranch’s inn/restaurant complex and were pleasantly surprised that the “scent” of the cows corralled just a few miles away wasn’t wafting in the air, allowing us to picnic outside the car.
Inside one of the Ranch’s adobe-esque buildings are three restaurant/bars: the Ranch Kitchen restaurant, The Steakhouse, and the Horseshoe Bar. Famous for their beef (this is a cattle ranch after all!) we often eat at one of the restaurants on the way home to LA. If we feel financially flush, we eat at the Steakhouse and I almost always have the filet tenderloin (rare) with a Jack Daniels wild mushroom sauce… a little less flush and we eat in the ‘kitchen’ where I’ll have either the horseradish flank steak salad (rare, of course) or the Ranch Burger, savory “juices” oozing, dressed with the special house sauce and my choice of cheese. But the trip up is always picnic time.
Also housed in this desert oasis building are a gift shop/butcher/bakery combination and very pretty, clean bathrooms. We hit the loos then bought some baseball steaks (a rare classic cut that’s mouth-wateringly delicious very, very rare) packed in dry ice to bring as a ‘hostess’ gift. We grabbed a huge fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie from the bakery for later and headed back to the car and our gourmet sandwiches. We spread a blanket under a nearby tree and remembered the time we sipped wine sitting under a thousand-year old olive tree in Provence.
Back on the road, we put on the Eagles. Bugs continued to meet their makers on our windshield as we sang along to “Hotel California.” When we reached the fork in the road… one tine leading to Sacramento, the other to the Bay area (today it was tine #2) we shared the cookie as we passed the fields of energy windmills scattered over the rolling, tan landscape that looked like a set from “Thelma & Louise.”
As we approached our destination, the ground became greener and the homes got closer together. I thought about the moonscape we just traveled and the picnic we shared under California’s “Tuscan” sun as we exited the freeway and headed to my cousin’s just in time for chilled martinis – shaken, not stirred.
So, for all of you out there who are about to take a holiday road trip, even if it’s a road you’ve often traveled… make it a picnic! Keep your eyes open. Let what you see and eat fill your senses… you’ll never know what movie you could be in, what country you might find yourself… what simple joys you could be missing. Or, rent a book on tape.