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Tuesday 29 Oct 2013
San Francisco, USA

From Napa Valley to Silicone Valley

We awoke with pleasantly clear heads after yesterday’s debauchery – ahem, wine tastings – and made our way to Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, an indoor market full of luxury artisanal food offerings.  We had a Mexican style taco breakfast and persuaded the Three Twins organic ice-cream stall to open half and hour early so we could try their Butterscotch and Pecan and rich Chocolate ice-creams.  On the way back to the car, we saw the infamous Napa Wine Train, which ferries wine tourists up the valley and back.

We decided to follow the Silverado Trail up the eastern side of the Napa Valley to Calistoga to see the Old Faithful geyser.  Having missed the one in Rotorua and been so taken with Lassen’s geothermic activities, I’d been looking forward to seeing this geyser.  It goes off every 30-40 minutes, shooting 60-100’ into the air.  When we got there, the surroundings looked decidedly more tacky than the rest of Napa but we paid our money and walked into a half-finished building site.  There was a new fountain with raised beds laid out in circles around it, which will look wonderful when planted up, but for now looked like, well, neatly arranged piles of mud.  In front of us was a slightly murky looking pond, unevenly shaped, with a random pile of boulders in the middle and weeds growing around the edges.  The ticket lady told us the geyser was due to go off in about 20 minutes, but as we walked up to the pond, there was already water shooting about 20’ in the air in short, quick bursts.  We weren’t sure if that was it, or just a warm-up burst, so we sat and waited.  For 40 minutes.  It turned out we had indeed caught the end of the previous spurt.  The full thing lasted about 5 minutes and shot much higher, but the surroundings were so peculiar that we still didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It almost felt like a circus sideshow, where you wouldn’t be surprised to discover there was a hosepipe and a pressure pump involved (like the fountains at the Bellagio) rather than natural geothermic activity. 

This circus-like atmosphere was heightened as we watched a worker try to drive a small JCB digger onto the back of a long flatbed lorry.  He had to use such power to get up the steep ramp that he very nearly overbalanced and rolled over backwards – it was only the scoop on the back that saved him. 

And then there were the goats.  Have you heard of Tennessee Fainting Goats?  Neither had we, but there they were.  They are famous, or maybe infamous, because their defense mechanism when startled is to lock their muscles, go completely rigid and literally play dead.  It can last anything from 15 seconds to several minutes.  We speculated that it might be quite amusing to see this, but it would be cruel to try and make it happen.  Instead, we fed them the grain we’d been given.  To try and share the grain out fairly, Ailsa threw a handful of it into their feeding trough.  One goat leapt after the flying grain, then seemed to suddenly realise he too was airborne and locked up midair, landing with a crash in the middle of the feeding trough and lay there absolutely rigid for a moment or two.  His companions simply munched around him and under him as he suddenly regained movement and scrabbled about trying to stand up.  Ailsa looked horrified at what she’d inadvertently done, while the rest of us cried tears of laughter at the goat’s reaction.  Cruel? Maybe.  Funny? Absolutely.  The geyser may have been a bit overrated, but the goats were well worth the visit.

We left the Napa Valley behind and followed the winding road across the line of hills that separate Napa and Sonoma so that we could head back down the Sonoma Valley.  Napa is the more famous and more popular of the two wine valleys, but Sonoma is more picturesque.  There were still vineyards as far as the eye could see, but the wineries were more spread out and it felt less crowded.

Sonoma itself is built around the old Mission.  This is the northernmost of 21 Missions on the El Camino Real (the Royal Road) that runs all the way from San Diego.  Originally designed to be a day’s ride on horseback apart, it’s now possible to visit them all in under a week.  The Sonoma Mission is the place where American settlers declared independence from Mexico in 1846.  We stretched our legs with a stroll around the town square and picked up some lunch, before making our way down to Santa Clara.

We’d booked a lovely looking Irish B’n’B just outside San Jose, in preparation for Ailsa’s meeting the next day.  The B’n’B had a check-in window of just two hours, from 4-6pm, so we’d left in plenty of time for the drive.  However, we hadn’t planned on staying so long at the geyser, and we now had to get down the 70+ miles of freeway alongside the bay at rush hour.  The traffic got considerably heavier as we reached Oakland and the six-lane freeway was far less comfortable than my previous trips along it.  American roadsigns have taken some getting used to – the information on the overhead boards is not necessarily displayed over the lane it refers to.  You have to count the number of arrows underneath and hope you’re not in the ‘exit only’ lane.  A lane going past one exit may suddenly become the exit lane for the next exit with little or no warning.  The sat-nav instructions included helpful things like ‘keep left, then stay on the right lane’ when referring to six lanes of traffic.  It also said ‘exit ahead’ when it actually meant ‘your exit is in two miles, but there will be four others before it which you can ignore, while trying to gamble on which lane is safe to stay in in the meantime’. I have done a lot of motorway driving in the last 10 years, but even my nerves were frazzled by the time we reached Santa Clara.  Our saving grace came in the form of the car pool lane.  With two of us in the car, we were allowed to cruise down the inside lane overtaking miles and miles of slow-moving solo-occupancy vehicles.  Without it, we’d have had at least another half hour on the journey.  Instead, we pulled up at exactly 5.55pm and turned the engine off with a sigh of relief.

Our host, Theresa, welcomed us into her cosy Victorian home and pointed out the creature comforts, such as the plate of cookies and bottle of port on the hall table, before asking if we’d like the hot tub in the garden warmed up for after dinner.  She then parked us on the terrace with a glass of wine and chatted away as if we’d known her for years.  We walked up the road for a great bowl of Vietnamese Pho and returned to find the hot tub ready and waiting.  A soak under the stars was the perfect end to the day.


Mileage: 2053

Running total: 4607


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