USA: Californian state of mind

By Shandelle Battersby

While one part of California dries out in a drought, Shandelle Battersby gets soaked in another.

The sun peeks over the Sierras for its first glimpse of Yosemite Valley in California. Picture / 123RF
The sun peeks over the Sierras for its first glimpse of Yosemite Valley in California. Picture / 123RF

The bleating was forlorn but the sight of a silky Nubian goat with his head wedged between two fence posts and no clue how to get it out, was slightly comical.

His owner, Rinconada Dairy's Christine Maguire, gently chided the little guy while helping him manoeuvre his bonce out of danger, then he promptly got it stuck again.

We were at Christine's ranch in the hills of Santa Margarita, Central California, to learn about her artisan raw sheep and goat's milk cheeses as part of The Californian, a Trafalgar coach tour from San Diego to San Francisco.

Our afternoon with Christine, her friendly McNab border collie Oona and the cheeky leader of her Nubian goatherd, Emma Peel, was one of Trafalgar's Local Specialty experiences, giving an opportunity for tourists to get off the well-beaten trail and experience something unique to an area, culture or industry.

Over local wines at the end of the tour, Christine invited us to try her terrific cheeses including carrizo, a delicious goat's cheese made with fennel and olive oil, paired with her homemade black chutney.

As we sat on her back deck in the sunshine enjoying the serenity of the ranch - while Oona played silly buggers in the pond behind us - it was hard to comprehend that we'd woken up in the middle of Hollywood the morning before. It was about as far away from the desperate streets of Los Angeles as you could imagine.

But then this was the point of The Californian - we had 10 days to get a taste of the state, and get a sense of what life was really like for the 37 million people who live in its many cities and counties.

At the moment life is hard thanks to the drought.

You can't escape the environment - and humankind's effects on it - in these parts. Aside from the water issue, to restrict emissions the coach we're travelling in is not allowed to idle; near Santa Barbara there is an overwhelming stench of petroleum from a devastating oil leak; and further north we hear about a couple of decent-sized earthquakes en route.

We'd kicked off our tour in San Diego, ironically, in driving rain - a rare occurrence in Southern California, travel director Mary Lee told us.

As we made our way north along its dramatic coastline, the Golden State began looking drier and thirstier and, in many places, downright gasping for water.

The state is made up of diverse terrain, destinations and cultures. Just over an hour north of LA, as we emerged from the Los Padres National Forest, the chapparal and yellow grass-clad hills, droopy palms and oak and eucalyptus trees began to give way to vineyards, citrus and olive trees, berry and cabbage patches and livestock, as turkey buzzards and California condors - once endangered - swooped menancingly overhead.

California produces about half of the fruit and vegetables in the US, and this is where we also see the migrant workers who make it possible.

Closer to San Francisco, nut trees begin to dominate the landscape. The humble almond is a source of much contention in this drought: one nut takes takes nearly 4 litres of water to grow and growing them uses 10 per cent of California's water supply every year, more than the entire city of Los Angeles. They use too much water, say opponents. They provide jobs and income to the state, say the farmers.

Who's right? Both. There's no easy answer to this one.

Central California is John Steinbeck country - this is where the great novelist set most of his books about the American Dream, working class and migrant workers, and the importance of Route 66, the "Mother Road", for those who fled the Midwest for California during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in the mid-30s.

John Steinbeck wouldn't recognise the Cannery Row of today. Photo / 123RF
John Steinbeck wouldn't recognise the Cannery Row of today. Photo / 123RF

Steinbeck would no longer recognise his beloved Cannery Row in Monterey - rather than being "sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses", these days it is thick with tourists.

He would, however, still get pleasure from the journey from Monterey Bay - where John Denver crashed his plane and died in 1997 - to the quirky village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, past a few preening shags on a broken pier and through a purple carpet of phlox wildflowers.

But he'd hate the fact the most scenic access nowadays is via a private road through a wealthy gated community.

Once the domain of bohemian artists, Carmel's biggest claim to fame is having Clint Eastwood among its former mayors, and Jack London, Ansel Adams, Robert Louis Stevenson, Doris Day and James Ellroy among its former residents. Today it attracts a different demographic but has retained its charm, including the law that prohibits high heels due to its irregular footpaths. Best of all are its fairy tale cottages built by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s.

With their higgedly-piggedly design, thatched or tiled roofs and bright colours, these charming homes are straight from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen story.

Such is the wildly varied climate and geography of California that one day I was worried about how much time I'd spent in the shower and paying for water in a restaurant; the next I was admiring the beauty of a thundering waterfall while getting soaked to the skin in pelting rain, feeling a little disappointed that the forecast snow hadn't turned up.

That morning - day seven - we'd pointed the coach east and headed inland towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains, climbing through the vast Central Valley to Yosemite National Park.

It's spring, so the waterfalls and waterways are flowing fast.

After following the wild Merced River for several kilometres with its boulders as big as cars, we entered the park through its memorable and geographically alarming Arch Rock, and headed to Tunnel View for our first look at the staggering El Capitan - the largest granite monolith in the world - and the 87-million-year-old Half Dome.

The day is 8C and foggy and wet, but we didn't care because those massive granite cliffs are one of the most glorious sights you'll ever see.

The sheer scale and beauty of them takes your breath away and it's hard to tear your eyes away. It's like being in a painting, someone says, and they're right.

The National Park, which celebrates its 125th birthday in October, is vast - 3100sq km, but the tiny part we're in around the main visitors' centre in Yosemite Valley is like a small town. There are villages and different levels of accommodation, all manner of shops, museums, a fascinating historic cemetery and a post office, all linked with a free shuttle.

Best of all is the Ansel Adams Gallery where you can buy gelatin silver prints of the great photographer's National Park landscapes, which range in price from US$5000 ($7800) to $100,000.

At this park you're part of the geology, explains Mary, because you're on the Yosemite Valley floor in among the trees.

Bright blue Steller's jays peck vigorously at pine and oak trees looking for insects, and gentle mule deer move around quietly, feeding in packs - neither the slightest bit concerned about the hordes of tourists or constant stream of traffic that has invaded their home.

It's almost a relief that this is the only wildlife we see - a pamphlet warns that if you see a mountain lion, pick up any nearby children so you look larger, and if you're attacked, fight back. Er, no way, mate.

People come here mostly to climb those treacherous granite cliffs - a couple of people on average die a year - as well as hike the network of trails.

There are two walks to the famous Yosemite Falls - North America's tallest at 740m dropping in three tiers - and the walk to the lower falls is just a 2.4 km round trip from the village.

If you can do it, go to the very top (11.5k round trip). Mirror Lake, a 3.2km round trip, offers a stunning reflection of Half Dome in the spring and summer months.

It's over all too soon. After breakfast I go for one last look at the falls and come across some of the deer.

We just hang out quietly for a while - it's too early for the tourist invasion - and then its time to get in the coach to head back down the mountains and make our way to the warmer climes of Napa County.


Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines flies from Auckland to Los Angeles or San Francisco via Honolulu.

Getting around: Trafalgar's 11-day The Californian guided holiday takes in San Diego and Los Angeles, plus San Francisco, Paso Robles, Monterey and Yosemite.

Where to stay: Rinconada Dairy is at 4680 W. Pozo Rd, Santa Margarita.

What to do: Yosemite National Park has several access points but is roughly a four-hour drive from San Francisco or a six-hour drive from Los Angeles. At certain times of the year you'll need tyre chains, and access fees and permits are required.

Further information: See for more on visiting California.

The writer travelled courtesy of Trafalgar and Hawaiian Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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