This is my idea of how to spend a chilly November morning: in the company of curious seals, exploring interesting, fragile rock formations while the wind whips the surface of the sea into white caps. Dry sand snaked across the slick wet sand like wisps of incense smoke. A sign said that the beach is closed during seal mating season around the beginning of December but Matthew and I observed nearly a dozen of them peeking their heads out of the surf to peer at us as we were leaving. It seems best not to disturb them in November, either!
One of the most lovely things about living in Southern California is enjoying the mild, sunny days of autumn. The heat of summer has subsided and is no longer unbearable during mid-day. The grass that covers the hills dies and turns golden and brittle to match the leaves of the maple trees. If lightning strikes, the brush is consumed and the ashes enable wildflowers to bloom and the seed pods of some species to germinate which wouldn’t otherwise.
This beauty was well displayed on the drive up to Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple. From Ojai, Matthew and I drove up highway 33 along the Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway. (See: Shadows of Sage Brush in Jacinto Reyes.)
About a mile after turning on to Lockwood Valley Road, we encountered the entrance to the temple. I had e-mailed the two monks in residence to ask if our visit would work well for their schedule, as requested on their website, so they were anticipating our arrival.
Two friendly, mellow dogs greeted us at the car before we were welcomed by one of the monks. We were the only visitors for the moment and received a full tour of the temple grounds. His colleague came out of the kitchen to welcome us, saying that she was making soup for the guests who would be coming later that afternoon for a weekend retreat.
We were shown a garden with a koi pond which he said had trouble keeping koi because the herons would occasionally visit and take a snack for themselves. I laughed and mused that the herons must have thought it kind that they had provided such a convenient spot to hunt. The urge to anthropomorphize never ceases to provide opportunities for humor. To dissuade the herons, they had erected a life-size decoy bird near the pond since herons are territorial.
We were also shown a green house in construction and told that it was hard to grow food in the area, including fruit trees, without an animal beating them to the harvest. Rabbits weren’t the only culprits; coyotes love grapes, apparently, and a bear had feasted upon their apple tree, bending and breaking the branches like a broken umbrella. Besides the trouble of growing food, the temple is quite self-sufficient through the use of well water and a solar panel system that covers all their electrical needs.
Hsi Lai Temple feels like an oasis in the middle of white-hot urban sprawl of Southern California. The dry “Santa Ana” winds were blowing at the time of our visit, adding an invigorating charge to the air. On our way there, Matthew and I paused at Sycamore Canyon to go for a leisurely hike and listen to the dry brush speak with its rustling. The air is usually so still in Southern California that the plants never otherwise have a voice. It is wonderful to feel everything come alive when these winds visit every autumn.
Upon arrival, we meandered through the gardens and gazed upon the faces of statues with expressions ranging from serene to crazed and comical. Since I lean more toward Zen Buddhism than Mahayana Buddhism (the former being more minimalistic and the latter being more ceremonial), it was peculiar for me to see a “forest of faces” in those gardens. I was further awe-struck by the extravagance of the meditation temple, featuring three giant gold statues of the Buddha and so many tiny golden lights to entrance and humble the observer that it was easy to let go of extraneous thoughts and be still, if only for a few moments in the day.
Gloomy autumnal weather settled on the coast yesterday, making it the perfect time to rise above the clouds of Santa Barbara County and explore the back country. Our first stop was Painted Cave State Park, right off San Marcos Pass on Highway 154.
It’s times like these when I feel compelled to praise my little car, “Sally”; she can climb mountain passes, zip past other cars on the highway and get great gas mileage. Since our furthest destination of the day was sixty-six miles away and Matthew and I are college students on a budget, the mileage rate is something I feel very thankful for.
“Sally” wound up a narrow, curvy road where we pulled off to the side near a sign marking the location of the cave. The paintings were made by the Chumash Native Americans and date back from the 1600’s or earlier but the meaning has supposedly been lost, according to the State Parks website. The Chumash have lived in Santa Barbara County for 13,000 years. The Spanish missionaries arrived in the 18th century and the United States acquired the area in 1848, meaning these paintings were created shortly before the land and its people experienced a major shift. A grate has been placed at the mouth of the cave to protect the paintings from vandalism.
After appreciating the paintings, Matthew and I continued along San Marcos Pass until we reached Lake Cachuma, where we went for a nice hike through the oak trees along the edge of the water.
A little further up the highway, we explored the small town of Solvang, which is described by the Solvang Chamber of Commerce as “…an authentic Danish settlement, founded in 1911 by Danish educators, where the heritage, faces, and customs of the Old World live on.”
Since Solvang also happens to be in the heart of wine country, our first objective was to find a place for wine tasting before exploring some of the “150 independent shops and art galleries.” Since there were a couple of locations for wine tasting on every small block, we peeked into a few before deciding on “Royal Oaks Winery”, where we enjoyed a “semi-sweet” tasting flight.
Slightly tipsy and saturated with sunshine (I had forgotten my sunscreen for the day. Matthew jokes that he doesn’t need sunscreen because he has learned to photosynthesize), we strolled the streets and peeked into shops.
I mused aloud in a whisper, “I wonder if the shop owners are used to tipsy tourists wandering through their stores. They are probably glad that lowered inhibitions drive up sales.” (But those working for the owners might not find it as amusing.) It was hard to tell what to make of a place that seemed almost, but not quite, drowning in tourism; there were some interesting finds but it seemed like we would have to dig for them like treasures in a thrift store.
One such treasure was a shop called “The Book Loft”, which featured a modest second story floor with vaulted ceilings where one could easily curl up comfortably with a book. Nothing makes me happier than finding a cool new bookstore. Whenever I go to a new place, my first question is, “Where are the bookstores? Better yet, where are the libraries?” In the movie “City of Angels”, one of the characters says that angels love to hang out in libraries; I’m not a spiritual or religious person, but I can understand why the screenwriter would imagine so.
Murphy Ranch contains the crumbling ruins of a property that once belonged to a Nazi sympathizer cult in the 1930’s. The FBI raided the property in the 1940’s and made several arrests for transmitting short-wave radio messages to the Germans.
It was later used as an artist commune and is now owned by the city of Los Angeles which would like to raise funds to clean it up and turn it over to the State of California. Currently, it is in a state of dangerous disrepair and neglect, creating an eerie, charged atmosphere for hikers and bikers to wander through. Local historian Randy Young commented on the property by saying: “I think we need pitiful memorials to a failed idea.”
Now the ocean mist and sparse Southern California rain tear it down piece by piece while lizards claim the rusty jungles as their home.
After an inspiring visit to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, we headed down a section of Land’s End Trail, where we alternately climbed up worn wooden stairs and down a winding dirt path while hugging the side of a cliff that overlooked the bay with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. All the while, Phoebe stayed safely in my back carrier.
After visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium (see Vibrant Jellies at the Monterey Bay Aquarium), Matthew and I checked into a modest yet very comfortable motel called The Beachway Inn located in Santa Cruz where I was nothing short of thrilled to discover that they had a large, comfortable, steaming hot jacuzzi. There was also a full-sized indoor pool heated to a comfortable temperature where Phoebe dipped her toes and Matthew and I stretched our muscles after the long car ride from Ojai.
The next morning, we ventured out to explore Santa Cruz starting with Natural Bridges State Beach.
Afterward, we ventured to the Beach Boardwalk which seemed to contain every colorful carnival amusement imaginable.
Our next stop was Wilder Ranch State Beach where Phoebe promptly fell asleep in Matthew’s arms. We explored the bluffs and marveled at the precipitous drop below. Phoebe was wearing her harness and tether to keep her safe when she woke up. Seagulls rested peacefully at the edge and pelicans soared through the air below us. Dolphins grazed the surface of the water in the distance, making the experience even more beautiful.
Three destinations in one day simply would not suffice in this beautiful city so we headed to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park where we took a leisurely walk on the soft, padded ground through an ancient forest.
Before returning to the motel, we went to a great mostly-vegetarian restaurant called the Saturn Café in the downtown area where we saw several interesting street performers lighting up the night. Phoebe had an understandably tired and grumpy moment in the restaurant. When I took her outside to calm down, a sweet older woman wearing metallic glitter on her cheeks and colorful scarves chatted with me about how she likes to add licorice flavor to her coffee at a local café. Her chatter distracted and calmed Phoebe while charming me completely, making me curious about what other interesting surprises this town has to offer.