California Trippin’

I flew North on the 22nd of August  – and I can’t help but think it is a very different kind of “North” than the one I flew to at this time of year when I still lived in Canada. For ten years in a row, I flew to the Arctic each summer as part of a team of scientists collecting soil, plant and water samples from military installations. By contrast, my trip this summer took me to Northern and Central California and it was good wine, great waves and memories that I was looking to gather.

After flying into San Francisco, I departed the next morning and turned the Silver Bullet (a Mini Cooper with black racing stripes) South on Highway 101 and headed for Santa Barbara County. Five hours later I was pulling into the quaint western-style town of Los Olivos where I was to meet a friend at the Los Olivos Café. I shocked us both by being on time. The café is really more a wine bar and I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s also a location featured in the movie Sideways starring Paul Giamatti. Had I known of its illustrious past, I wouldn’t have eaten dried fruit and nuts on the drive down. Nancie had brought along a friend, Sue, both of whom are dyed-in-the-wool cowgirls employed by the ranch where they both live. Sue, it turned out, is also a biologist and a poet. We hit it off immediately. With my ability to stay in the saddle at stake, I ordered an Arnold Palmer and sat listening to the cowgirls talk story as they threw down a couple of beers and the soup of the day.

Cowgirl Nancie. She’s clearly comfortable up there, unlike yours truly.

Sue turned out in her Sunday best sombrero and beaded shirt.

From Los Olivos we headed further North up the Santa Ynez Valley to Vino Vaqueros (that’s Spanish for Wine Cowboys) for some horseback riding and wine-tasting. I was disappointed momentarily when our guide informed me that the wine-tasting wasn’t done on horseback, but using the same reasoning I’d employed at the café, I understood why they don’t mix the two. We rode at a leisurely pace through neat, verdant rows of grapes contrasted against a backdrop of rolling golden hills. I hadn’t ridden in decades and that my knees weren’t accustomed to wrapping around such a large creature (or any creature at all these days) and they soon began to protest vociferously. Just then the guide decided it was time to canter the horses, but before she took off, she warned me that my horse, Zoomer, liked to go fast. She kicked her horse into high gear and Zoomer took off in pursuit while I winced and waited for my knees to tear away from the rest of my body. I was pleasantly surprised that they did not and that somehow the cantering made the pain in my knees subside – maybe it was that the pain in my butt now exceeded that in my knees?

My legs are stuck straight out because I’m trying to relieve the strain on my knees…it isn’t working.

I admit I was happy to see the stables when we headed back and was even more relieved when my legs didn’t give out and make me crumple to the ground when I slid out of the saddle.

The Fess Parker Winery was our next stop, where we were treated to a tasting that included seven of their wines. I was pleasantly surprised that the actor that played Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone was apparently also a remarkable vintner. While I managed to resist buying a synthetic “coonskin” cap, I did walk out of there with a bottle of The Big Easy – a blend of different Syrah grapes from around the valley, with just a touch of Petite Syrah and Grenache added in for depth.

The Fess Parker Winery was another location featured in the movie Sideways.

For dinner we headed to Buellton, the town that Sideways made famous and ate, where else, at The Hitching Post. Turns out Nancie used to work there and every one in the place knows her. We got the royal treatment from our server Jackie as a result. Seeing as beef is another major product produced in the region, I ordered the filet miñon – it was off the hook…sooooo tender.

At the end of the evening, I followed Nancie back to her home on The Hollister Ranch, the fourth largest ranch in Santa Barbara County with over 98% of its 14,400 acres devoted to well managed and sensitive cattle grazing. But “The Ranch” as it’s locally known has more than just beef going for it. Mention of its name to a surfer and they invariably get a glassed over look in their eyes, as I imagine prospectors did when they spoke of California’s gold. That’s because the ranch occupies 8 miles of California coastline from Gaviota State Park to Point Conception and the riches here are uncrowded waves, the result of very low density development and vehicular access being limited to ranch property owners and their guests. We passed through the security gate where I received a guest pass to display on the Silver Bullet’s dash and then continued ten miles further along a wickedly sinuous and narrow road that climbs hills and drops into narrow valleys, up and down the whole way in the dark. The Bullet handled the road well and I was glad not to be driving a big pickup like Nancie was.

Arriving safely, we toasted my finally arriving at the Ranch with another nice Santa Barbara County wine and then hit the hay. As I dropped off to sleep I mind-surfed glassy, uncrowded waves.

The Journey

Last night, the Iniciativa Mexico competition between the five finalists of the Environmental category was held on live television. I watched the TV Azteca coverage via the internet. Technology is amazing! Allowing me to watch a Mexican television program via the transmission of millions of 0s and 1s (bits and bytes of information moving at incredible speeds over thousands of miles). It is mind blowing to consider how far we have come technologically in the last 100 years.
Mario Castro did a great job as the representative for Amigos para la Conservacion de Cabo Pulmo. He was up against some very stiff competition. Voting was done by telephone, instant message and online and the project receiving the greatest number of votes from all over Mexico and abroad was declared the victor. “Agua para Siempre” Water for Always was the winner. ACCP came in third, receiving 14% of the votes. It was predictable that in a popular vote, Agua para Siempre would win because the availability of clean drinking water and water for every day purposes is still a serious issue throughout Mexico. It is something that affects millions of lives daily, so it speaks to a very broad audience. The protection of a fragile reef system is something less immediate, less important to people who don’t have clean water to drink or bathe in.
Although ACCP did not win by popular vote, there is still the chance that they will be chosen by the technical counsel to continue on to the finals. In each category, the technical counsel reserves the right to choose a project that they feel is worthy of further consideration. I remain optimistic that ACCP will be given another chance in the Iniciativa Mexico competition because the reef that they work so hard to protect is internationally recognized as a treasure and is important as a nursery for commercially important species of fish. Regardless of what happens, ACCP can be proud to have made it to the semi-finals, one of 25 groups chosen out of 47,049 entries. They have also succeeding in bringing much needed attention to their work and to Cabo Pulmo National Park. If you took the time to vote last night, thank you.
Today preparations are being made to leave Maui tomorrow. We will fly to San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco, the same place where last Thursday there was a huge natural gas explosion, killing at least four people (many are still unaccounted for) and destroying 37 homes. In the blink of an eye, many lives were changed forever, reminding us to live each day as though it is our last. We never know when our time here will be over, when we will utter those last words to a love one, see them for the last time.
On Saturday we will fly on to Mexico, to the heat of the desert, to the tranquil blue waters of the Sea of Cortez, to live life to the fullest.

Canada to Mexico: Part II….Costa Rica

In the office a couple of weeks later, my friend Julie was sharing photos from a trip to Costa Rica she’d recently taken. Julie is a vivacious French Canadian woman with whom I share a love of sports, languages, music, good food and life in general. She put the joie in joie de vivre. She announced she was enrolling in Spanish lessons over the noise of the radio, which she’d tuned to Latin dance music. She flitted about the office as she told me about her trip – making dance moves that seemed as exotic as the tale she was telling me. It all sounded so wonderful and passionate and exciting. And out of my reach. She showed me her photos and surprised me when she explained that she’d gone on the trip by herself.  

“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked her. It had never occurred to me that a woman could travel on her own to a foreign country. My conservative, angst-ridden view of the world had just been stood on its head again.

According to Julie it was very safe and she explained how she had traveled from place to place on local buses filled with other foreign travelers just like her, many of them making their way on their own. It sounded too good to be true. The travel virus from the Tuk boy’s van came out of dormancy and my head spun with dreams of travel and the hot tropical sun beating on my ghostly white skin.

My excitement waned when my financial reality superimposed itself on my daydreaming head. I really couldn’t afford the airfare, but Julie said that once you were there hotel and food prices were remarkably low.  Still, I didn’t see how I could afford it.

The next day it dawned on me. The one thing acquired from the marital assets was the collection of airmiles accumulated from 6.5 years of household credit card expenses (a large outstanding balance of which I sadly also took away with me).

I pressed Julie for details and began to plan a trip following her itinerary. I called the airline and booked a two-week trip for February 2000. I ordered Spanish for Beginners.

Time flew. Before I knew it I was bound for Costa Rica. On the plane, I pulled Spanish for Beginners out of my backpack and cracked it for the very first time. I’d sworn I’d have basic Spanish down before I got there, but between work obligations and the demands of writing my master’s thesis there wasn’t much time left for idle pursuits like learning a new language. I cursed my job and myself as I tried in a last minute panic to cram as much Spanish into my brain as possible during the four-hour flight to Miami. By the time the plane from Miami touched down in the capital city of San Jose, CR I’d managed to memorize “My name is Dawn,” “Where are the bathrooms?” and “How much is that?” I could also count to ten.

The plane was abuzz with the excitement of other travelers as we all waited for the cabin crew to open the door and set us free. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to remove my wool socks, revealing two very white, cold-to-the-touch feet.

At this point in my life, my feet were perpetually numb with cold and had been for round about 17 years. On a high school night-skiing trip I’d managed to frost bite all ten of my toes to the point that they turned black, the result of all the capillaries in my toes rupturing in an excruciating explosion of pain. Yes, I cried. Then I went out for pizza and forgot all about it until I went home and took my socks off. A friend who was staying overnight with me screamed when she saw my toes. That’s when I remembered the pain I’d been in just a few hours earlier. In the days that followed, I hid my grotesque feet and the pain they induced, too petrified of parental wrath were I to reveal my fetid phalanges, and thereby risked gangrene setting in. It was just dumb luck that let me keep my toes, but not until all the nails and a thick layer of skin peeled off several weeks later. It was pretty disgusting and painful. Ever after I had semi-numb, cold feet.

I slipped my Teva’s back on and waited.

The next thing I knew they were opening the cabin doors and the airplane filled with the warmest, softest most sweet-smelling air I’d ever smelled. The warmth enveloped my feet and I felt them tingle with sensation as they warmed as though placed in a tub of balmy water. As I disembarked, my whole body was enveloped in the caress of the tropical air and seemingly sucked it in through its pores. I felt my shoulders and then my whole body relax. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much tension my body was carrying as it braced against the cold of a Canadian winter. I slowed to a crawl as my senses were overcome and I wanted to stop at the bottom of the stairs so I could just drink in the sensation. But there were Costa Rican airport officials there herding us towards the terminal. Air appreciation would have to wait.


Canada to Mexico: Part I

 The following is part of a series of blogs that will describe how it is that I came to live and surf in Mexico. Along the way, you will also learn about Cabo Pulmo, as promised, oh so many blogs ago.
It was an honest-to-goodness dark and stormy night in November 1999 and I was driving the two lane between Gananoque and Kingston in an old burgundy Chevy van. The van was one of those funky numbers from the 80s outfitted with captains’ chairs, a queen-sized bed and a gas gauge that didn’t work. A friend’s boyfriend who’d been visiting from Tuktoyaktuk lent it to me in exchange for parking while he left for a month to go harvest marijuana in Jamaica. Along with freedom and sanity, my new apartment came with a parking space that I had nothing to park in because my soon-to-be ex was keeping pretty much all our matrimonial assets including the truck registered in my name. When the boy from Tuk said I could use his van in exchange for free parking, I agreed, happy to have temporary wheels and picturing it as the perfect ride to transport my meager belongings between “Broken Home” and “Newly-single-woman-in-her-30s Home.”

So I was driving through the dark countryside, Dido’s Hunter rather prophetically playing on the tape deck, squinting through the rain-splattered windshield and thinking, taking stock really, of where I was and what the future might hold. I wasn’t afraid in my aloneness, which was unusual, and hummed along as Dido concurred that I should “take a chance on life again.” It was excitement I was feeling, mild excitement with a tiny edge of the ever-present WASP angst emanating from the territory of the unknown. I’d just walked away from everything in my life I’d worked very hard for – a home with a big yard, my garden, all the “stuff” we’d filled the house with and, most life-altering, a marriage of 6.5 years. We were partners and lived together most of thirteen years. [“Minus one” I always say, referring to the year we spent apart before I ran back to him, tail between my legs.]  He was all I’d ever known as an adult. We moved in together the January before my 19th birthday and since then I’d only spent that one year on my own – a year filled with acute depression (and the weight gain associated with shitty 90s anti-depressants), insecurity and a sense that I would never find another man who could love me. 

But as I drove towards Kingston, I knew this time was different. After years of agonizing and second-guessing myself, in the instant when I finally decided I had to leave, I knew it was right. An immense weight I’d carried around for years was lifted from my shoulders and I felt a sense of optimism lift me up off the ground like I’d suddenly sprouted wings. In that moment, I knew I made the right decision. And I never so much as peaked backwards.

In the weeks and months that ensued that relationship-shattering decision, when I ran into people who knew us both I’d have to control my instinct to smile and be joyful in the face of what everyone saw as a great tragedy. One of our friends was visibly shaken at the news. He cried like it was his own when he spoke of the end of our marriage. I realized then that people see what they want to see and hang a lot of their own dreams for a perfect and wonderful life on what they perceive others have. The trouble is that it’s impossible to really know what someone else is experiencing. What others saw as a successful partnership and loving marriage was in fact a cold and critical thing lacking any love at all.

But I digress.

So I was driving along and thinking about my future and the boy from Tuk’s trip to Jamaica danced around in my imagination. Whatever it was that made him so free, I hoped it was catching and the van a virtual spawning ground. How nice it would be to go somewhere warm after what had been nine summers in a row working in the Arctic and winters spent in bone-numbing, dreary southern Ontario. I played with the seemingly impossible idea that I could just pick up and take off somewhere tropical. Unbeknownst to me I was infected, but the virus would need to incubate for a few weeks more.


Traveling Surfus: How to package your surfboard for safe arrival at its destination.

On November 23rd, travel to the beautiful island of Maui was undertaken. Travel to the Hawaiian islands for this blogger requires transporting equipment to surf. This includes boards, leashes, bathing suits, board shorts, rash guards, sunscreen and surf wax – most of which is very small and portable. All, except the most important piece of equipment, the boards.

Getting a surfboard from point A to point B, several thousand miles and three plane flights away can be a snap in the most positive sense of the word, provided you have the know-how to package your boards for arrival safely on the other side.

Surfboards are constructed of fiberglass over a foam core with a “stringer” made from wood that runs down the center. The stringer gives the board added strength along its longitudinal axis, however, the rest of the board is FRAGILE and susceptible to being damaged or “dinged.” Let’s put it this way, it’s called “fiberGLASS” for a reason. Remember the Samsonite luggage commercial? With this in mind, traveling long distances with a board requires something extra, something special to protect them from the “gorillas” working at the luggage department of your local airport.

I recalled my very first surf trip to the wilds of Sayulita, Mexico, where I was schooled in the method by a real So Cal Old Timer.

“The first step is to remove the fins from the board.”

It used to be that fins were fixed, glassed right into the board and I guess some shapers still do this, but it’s increasingly uncommon. Both the boards to be prepared in this case have removable fins. I packaged each set into Ziplock bags with their respective screws and fin key (two different systems for connecting the fins to the board).

Step 1. Remove fins.

“Pipe insulation is the key,” he reported. “Use it to protect the rails and you’re more than half-way there.”

Step 2: Protect the rails with 1 inch pipe insulation.

“Wrap the whole thing with bubble wrap taking special care to cushion the nose and tail.”

Step 3. Wrap it all up with bubble wrap – the big bubble kind.

“I like to protect the whole thing with cardboard too. I just cut out a big piece of cardboard the size of the board and duct tape it over the bubble wrap.”

Step 4. Cover the deck and the bottom with cardboard to protect them from projectiles.

With both boards’ rails protected with pipe insulation, wrapped completely in large-bubble bubble wrap and the cardboard protecting the deck and bottom of each board, the last step was to get both boards into a single board bag. This avoids paying additional handling charges for more than one board at the airport. At anywhere from $50 to $200 per board bag, this is an important consideration. [I’ve even heard that some airlines are asking how many boards are in each bag and charging accordingly!]

Ideally one would have a travel bag that is designed to hold more than one board. It is also ideal to have a board bag that is only about six inches longer than your longest board. In this case I have to make due. Fortunately, the “man” has a 10 foot long board that is at least 30 inches wide. His board bag should be an adequate travel bag for a couple of my shorter boards, albeit a good two feet too long. First the 7’6” is placed on the bottom, cushioned by its board bag, then the 6’10” on top of the longer board and its bag is placed on top of that for added cushioning. The noses and tails are wrapped in beach towels and my wet suit. Then the whole thing is zipped…not quite shut.


Remember in the 80s when those tight tight skinny jeans were in style (I think they recently tried to make a come back)? They were so tight that it was necessary to lie on the bed to get them zippered and often a metal clothes hanger was necessary to draw the zipper closed. Well, that’s the memory conjured by the first attempt to close that board bag. The two zippers stopped short of the closed position and the bag lay there still open in an open-mouthed Rolling Stones-esque taunt.

I try adjusting the boards’ position in the bag so that their widest point is aligned with the widest section of the bag. I remove the board bags added for extra cushioning. Still too tight.

And then I remembered Lady. When I was a kid, my Aunt Lillian had a horse named Lady. Like any red-blooded Canadian girl, I loved horses and loved to ride, but sadly Lady hated to be ridden. She would do everything in her considerable power to avoid being ridden or to stop the rider short. She would refuse to walk or she would get you to the far end of the field and then start to buck like a rodeo bronc. But her favorite and most common move was to fill herself with air as we saddled her up and then as we’d walk through the field she’d slowly empty herself with very smelly and saddle-loosening results. If the rider wasn’t careful, she could end up sliding South with the saddle and dumped on the ground under the horse.

The extra air between the boards in the form of multiple layers of bubble wrap was acting just like Lady’s air-filled stomach and would have to go. So, “pop!” they went as I squeezed them like so many pimples on an acne-faced teenager. Gradually the space between the two boards shrank and, low and behold, the board bag closed. No wire clothes hanger required.

The final result.