From the coast to the hills, California was awash in color. It’s been a bit of a long winter in Denver—and I love winter!—so the brilliance of all those flowers and trees and waves was welcome. A few favorites …
The sound of water is one of my absolute favorite things in the world. I wasn’t disappointed here.
Wildflowers were everywhere! There were these orange guys above, and at Point Reyes we happened across these enormous thistles.
I had already been going ON about the area reminding me of Scotland, so finding a thistle pretty much confirmed what I wouldn’t shut up about. (I’m apparently not the only one who’s made the comparison—there’s a town in the area named Inverness.)
Ferns! You get ferns a lot in northern Michigan, but they’re nowhere to be found in Colorado (at least that I’ve found). We saw these while hiking around Muir Woods and Mt. Tam.
So that hike. We left the tourism-choked boardwalk of Muir Woods for the Ocean View trail, one-and-a-half miles of steady climbing to a ridge over the forest. Luckily, it was nearly completely shaded, so at least we were cool.
The destination we were headed toward—after about two-and-a-half miles—was a beer garden in the middle of the forest.
What? Yeah. The Nature Friends Tourist Club is a private German beer garden just kind of hanging out—all Hansel and Gretel-style—in the woods. Technically, there’s a road there, but they ask that you hike since that’s kind of the whole mission of the place. It was an awesome experience, but BUT … apparently it was the first public day of the year, and apparently the entire Greek system of some university decided to meet up and generally be annoying. I think a lot of them drove there too, so my feelings of superiority and annoyance are totally justified.
Anyway, it was a beautiful hike and I’m glad we did it but I would totally pay to be a member to not have to deal with a bunch of day-drunk co-eds sporting their carefully planned “hiking chic.” Moving on…
Lovely, lovely. Our last day in California, we drove south to visit a friend who lives in Monterey. He took us on the famed 17-mile drive through posh Pacific Grove toward posher Pebble Beach to poshest Carmel. Mansions, there were a few.
Even better, though, was the shoreline, all craggy and cliffs and weather-twisted cypress groves. The photo above is the “lone cypress,” which I guess has no friends and likes to be all mysterious and brooding. Carmel, by the by, had this whole “ye olde quainte Englande” thing going for it. It actually worked, though.
And then there’s this. A field of purple wildflowers along the sea. A perfect end to what was a pretty perfect trip.
Pro tip: It doesn’t matter how diligent you are about eating throughout the day while wine tasting, you will—I repeat, you WILL—be a bit tipsy by winery number five.
But, I mean, with this view, that’s not so bad, right?
We chose Sonoma over Napa because I’d heard Sonoma was a lot more chill. I like wine (kind of a lot, actually), but I’m not one to talk about its legs and terroir and whatnot.
So, Sonoma. We started pretty far north in lovely Healdsburg, and I’m so happy we did. Every twist and turn of the narrow roads opened up to stunning views. Wine dominates, but the area has a rich agricultural past that can still be found in the farms and fields hugging the hillsides.
One such hillside was at Bella Vineyards, our first stop.
Yeah, I totally thought “Hobbiton!” as well.
The views over the surrounding countryside were expansive and expressive. There was a lot more contented sighing going on in my area of the car as we drove up. Even better, the actual tasting is done in a wine cave. Bella Vineyards: Embracing Hobbits and Enticing Jenny.
We bought an inky Petite Sirah and headed back down the hill to neighboring Preston Vineyards. Preston is not only a winery but a working farm that has its own olive grove.
After some necessary petting of cats, we made our way into a beautiful old barn for a tasting. Like at Bella, the tasting was low key, and we chatted with the employees there a bit—I loved that it didn’t feel rushed or at all judge-y.
We picked a rose, which honestly surprised us both. I usually think tooth-achingly sweet when I think rose, but Preston’s was crisp and dry and a perfect summer sipper. Not that it made it to summer: We also picked up some seriously delicious olive oil courtesy the farm’s grove, fresh bread and cheese from the attached farm store and took our treat outside.
Perhaps taking a break from wine tasting to drink nearly half a bottle of wine wasn’t the wisest choice … but it was lovely at the time.
Slowly, we drove* south through the countryside to Sonoma proper, stopping a couple times along the way. We ended up at the fabulous plaza, where I saw a man leading a mini-horse on a leash through the park. Yes. Just yes.
Our final stop of the evening was at the Hawkes tasting room on the plaza. This was such a perfect last stop. It was getting near closing time (most of the wineries close at 4:30, and the tasting rooms close around 6), and our server was generous with the pours. We fell for a big Cab and made our “let it age” purchase of the trip.
The day ended with more cheese, more wine, and generally amazing food on the patio at The Girl and the Fig. Sonoma, I think I’m in love.
(*And by “we,” I mean my husband, who was being a responsible DD. Public service announcement complete.)
I believe it is statistically impossible to visit California and NOT take a photo of a palm tree.
And that’s the whole point here, right? California kitsch: the oh-so-touristy things we embraced. Here the thing, I’m fine with acting the typical tourist every once in a while. It can be liberating to stay on the well-traveled path, at least a little bit.
And there’s nothing more touristy than this:
Yes. We rented a red, convertible Corvette. I’ve never had so many middle-aged men give me that driver half-wave thing. I was kind of mortified at first. A red Corvette is just so obvious. But then once I’d gotten over myself, I had to admit it was kind of fun. Kind of lots of fun. Zipping—wait, not zipping; while the ‘vette was fast, there was nothing about it that cried “zippy.” Okay, so speeding up Highway 1—the ocean on one side and cliffs on the other, sun overhead and hair being whipped into something that can only be described as cavewoman chic—it was impossible not to grin.
Also impossible? To not stop for this iconic snap:
The final kitschy stop was a tourist trap about which I was genuinely excited. As a kid, I learned about the Winchester House and was fascinated. Quick backstory: Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester fortune—aka, “the gun that won the West”—was convinced she was cursed by the souls of all those the Winchester rifle had killed. To keep the curse at bay, she worked on her mansion non-stop for more than 30 years. I’m talking night and day here. The mansion grew and grew and grew with zero cohesion or thought. There are stairs leading nowhere, doors that open to nothing, windows in floors. Crazy, right?
Touring the mansion, I was struck by how plain it all was. It’s definitely mansion-sized, but there is little that is grand about the interior. The hallways zig-zag down narrow chutes, the rooms are modest. It’s a warren of jumbled rooms, confusing corridors, and an overwhelming feeling of being trapped—the way out is not so obvious. I wonder if it felt that way for Sarah Winchester as well.
Can you spot the door leading nowhere?
Oh! The house is supposed to be haunted too! No ghosty sightings on my visit, however.
Next up: learning how to pace yourself on a daytrip through Sonoma.
It’s California week around here. I just returned home (at the eye-achingly late hour of 1:30 am) from a mini-break around central coastal California.
I was a very happy Jenny…
(I may or may not have yodeled a few bars from “The Hills are Alive” before collapsing to the grass all dramatic-like for this photo. There was a lot of contented sighing going on.)
Okay, so that term. I was saying “mini-break” since it was kind of an impromptu trip, but my husband kept trying to get me to admit it was a proper vacation, since the trip totaled six days. Whatever. It was a break. It was mini(ish). There was a lot of wine and cheese involved.
And … a houseboat! An honest-to-god houseboat! Staying in a houseboat had become one of those things I simply HAD to do, kind of like longing to stay in a yurt. I have no idea where these compulsions come from, but once they hit they don’t go away.
The Sausalito houseboat was docked at the end of a twisty, turn-y warren of floating docks, most of them connected with plywood, crossed fingers and probably used gum. Just like the docks, the houseboats were a jumble of beautiful, unique floating homes and glorified (and many not-so-glorified) dinghies. And it. was. awesome.
My husband (rightly) called it a hippie barrio, but it was exactly what I feel a houseboat commune should be.
Better yet, the bright, adorable houseboat we called home for a few nights came stocked with two friendly cats. I mean, all it really needed was a llama and I probably would have never left.
Yeah, it was painted with a squid, because it was amazing like that. Also amazing, the wonderfully cool breeze, waking up to the sounds of seabirds, a porthole in the bathroom…
A porthole! And this saucy lady waited to hold towels:
We’d both been to San Francisco before, so staying north of the city in Sausalito was perfect. It made it easy to reach everywhere we wanted to (which included an elephant seal colony and a hike-in beer garden) and a chill place to rest each night.
Up next: Embracing California kitsch with a convertible, a bridge, and a museum dedicated to crazy.
Three days to write 2,000 words for NYC Midnight’s round two/heat three “adventure” prompt—this is what I came up with. It’s quite a bit more light-hearted (and, uh, surface-y) than my first round story, but I had fun with it. We’ll see if straight-forward swashbuckling and shark attacks are things the judges go for…
THE OUTER BANK: Action/Adventure / A hurricane / Scuba diver
Marnie perched at the edge of the Empire State Building and peered into the waters of Old New York. Skyscrapers poked at the surface, but only a handful breached the sea.
It was oddly still, the air salty and washed clean. The sky above shone jewel blue. That was the strangest thing about this whole endeavor: clear sky at the center of a hurricane. It was utterly absurd.
It was all absurd. Marnie checked her gear bag again, her mind on the wall of clouds surrounding their patch of blue. Who swam headlong into a hurricane? She did, apparently. But her buyer was right: The storm meant the monument of a sunken city was—for once—unguarded.
Her watch beeped. Ninety minutes. Ninety minutes to swim through Old New York, break into the Federal Reserve vault and reach the rendezvous with enough gold bars to last a lifetime. She swallowed down a bark of laughter. Simple, right? The rainbands at the eye’s edge growled in disagreement.
“Yeah,” Marnie mumbled to Hurricane Laron. “Crazy, I know.”
“Talking to yourself is one of the signs,” Jessa said, cutting Marnie a glance. The girl flashed a grin, and Marnie smiled though her stomach churned. Her first time leading a job, and this is the craziness she picked.
Marnie pushed down nerves and tapped her wrist. “Watches set?”
Jessa held hers up like a kid at show-and-tell. Sam grumbled and jiggled his arm, about as cheery as the hurricane.
“Okay. The eye is forty miles across, giving us about ninety—”
“We know, Mar,” Sam said. He’d already locked his helmet over his divesuit, and his voice issued sharp and tinny. He touched the daggers at his utility belt, the harpoon at his thigh and the spear across his back in a final check. “We’ve gone over this.”
Marnie glared. “Not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’re diving into a hurricane”—she pointed to the towering clouds—“angry, swirly sonofabitch that wants to kill us. And you know we won’t be alone down there.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “You’re just nervous to be on point.” Marnie’s nostrils flared in annoyance. Sam knew her too well. “Are we going or what?”
“Yeah,” chirped Jessa. She nudged Marnie’s shoulder. “It’ll be fun!”
Or the opposite of that.
With a final glance above, Marnie bailed over the edge and splashed into the sea. She set the propulsion on her boots and flattened out, gliding above the crumbling city streets gridding out far below.
The submerged city was ethereal, the man-made canyon walls green with wispy algae and studded with a mosaic of nubby barnacles. Hulking remains of cars transformed into a refuse reef, and light poles stood like seaweed sentinels.
To experience Old New York like this zinged through Marnie and soothed her nerves. She was never as calm as when her body went weightless. And down here, it was easy to pretend a hurricane wasn’t currently squatting on top of them.
They swam south through sun-washed water, the silt stirred up by Laron’s leading edge settling to the streets. Light caught at silvery schools of fish darting among buildings—old tenants replaced with new. They passed under a stout arch, the edges eaten away by the bite of seawater, and the street gave way to a forest of brown kelp.
They were above the far edge of the forest when the delicate grasses suddenly shivered. Marnie pulled her knees in, floating upright. What the—a split-second later a boom reverberated through her bones.
“That was one hell of an explosion,” Jessa shouted, the com system screeching.
“No shit.” Sam reached for the spear across his back, his eyes darting to Marnie. “Orders?”
“Uh, swim faster.”
Marnie surged ahead, squeezing through a dark alley between collapsing buildings. Something whistled past, and Marnie twisted away just as the tip of a harpoon embedded into brick. She somersaulted toward the assault, her heart kicking in her chest.
Even in the dim light, she recognized him: Fergus Boyle. Her stomach clenched and her blood pounded a warning: Flee. Boyle’s arms and legs beneath the divesuit were still massive, the red-eyed shark emblem stretched taut across his chest. Marnie’s shoulder suddenly ached, the jagged scar remembering her last encounter with the Boyle Brothers.
Another harpoon hurtled overhead, and Fergus disappeared behind a screen of bubbles. Marnie tore away, Jessa and Sam at her side. They careened down a jumble of alleys until the Federal Reserve reared up before them. Marnie stopped short, her breath as jagged as the hole exploded into the building’s side. The water between them and the opening bobbed and bled with chum—a favorite trick of the bastard brothers—and already the sharks gathered.
“Christ, what a slop job,” Jessa snarled, staring past the sharks to the giant hole.
“Yeah, meet the Boyles,” Sam said. “They go big and dumb.”
Marnie eyed the sharks. “We’ve got to deal with fast and bitey first.”
Dread bubbled inside her, but there was no turning back. And there was absolutely zero chance the Boyles would beat her again.
The sharks snapped and jerked, tearing at fish chunks. A fin grazed her arm. A nose bumped her leg. She bit down hard and glided through the feeding grounds, her heart hammering so hard she feared her ribs would crack.
The building opened before them, black and silent. But anything topped the Boyle’s welcoming party. The halls were worm tunnels, bits of ceiling hanging like broken body parts, and the water was cold and oily. Marnie shivered and hoped no one noticed.
They circled down until they uncovered the Fed’s heart—a massive steel vault. Jessa got to work on the door, placing explosive packets while Marnie assembled the jet-propelled dolly and Sam stood guard. How had they possibly beaten the Boyles? Anticipation pricked at Marnie’s nerves, made every sound a threat.
Finally, with a stuttering pop-pop-pop, Jessa bypassed the system. The vault door groaned, a deep keening, then let go.
Water poured into the airtight chamber, a century of pressure imploding and sucking everything—Marnie, Jessa and Sam included—with it. The door slammed, locking them in.
Something nudged Marnie’s back, and she whirled. Floating in the churn of water and debris was a shriveled corpse, brittle brown. A hollowed-out chest bumped against Marnie’s helmet; a badge slid across her vision: Doug, Accounts Manager.
Marnie squeaked and shoved the corpse away. Doug knocked against the stacked gold bars and bobbed at the ceiling. Awesome. Just absolutely awesome. Marnie scrubbed any leftover Doug from her helmet and turned to Sam and Jessa, who both watched her closely. She was the leader. She needed to lead. Even if there was a dead guy bobbing in the corner. She checked her watch.
“We’ve got forty minutes to get out, get the gold and get to the rendezvous point.” Her voice quaked, damn thing.
Silently, Marnie and Sam loaded the dolly while Jessa worked on rigging a way out. The gold was slippery under Marnie’s hands but made an agreeably solid clink as she stacked. That clink was good. It was simple and took her mind off the Boyles and the hurricane and the sharks waiting for the main course.
Marnie was so focused she didn’t hear the vault door open. She didn’t notice a thing until a spear pressed into her side.
Both Boyles floated before her. Marnie’s stomach sank faster than Old New York had a century ago. The bastards pressed them back against the gold; Doug’s feet tapped at Marnie’s shoulder.
Angus fingered a gold bar. “Winner winner, chicken dinner.”
“Like hell you’re taking this gold,” Marnie spat, her eyes narrowed. He still wore that awful shark tooth necklace. Last time she’d seen it, it’d been spattered with her own blood.
“Brother, what should we do with this gold?” Angus smiled as he spoke, his eyes on Marnie.
“We should take it, Brother,” Fergus answered. He shoved the point of his spear harder into Sam’s stomach. Sam threw Fergus a rude gesture. “And with the chum?”
Angus licked his lips, and Marnie’s stomach curdled. “Ah, Brother. I believe they should die.”
“Brothers?” Marnie said, breaking up the Boyle creep-fest. Both men swung their little eyes her way. She smiled, her hand at the dolly’s propulsion switch. “Bite me.”
Marnie jammed the switch. The dolly thrust straight into Angus’ gut and slammed him into the wall. The vault exploded with flying limbs and flashing daggers and Sam shouting every curse word he knew. Marnie surged toward Fergus, but Angus slashed his spear, opening a gash along her ribs. He grabbed her wrist, twisting until pain seared up her arm.
“Stop!” Jessa screamed, and everything froze. She rammed a flare gun against Fergus’ neck. “We’re taking this gold. You can have Doug over there for your damn chicken dinner.”
Marnie smashed the vault shut on the Boyles, and they took off. They were nearly out when a gut-wrenching explosion tore beneath them. They burst from the Fed just as it gave an almighty groan and collapsed.
Plumes of muck erupted into the water, spitting them into a world reclaimed by Laron. The sea had soured to a queasy green, the first fingers of the hurricane yanking them into its fist. It pulled the blood leaking from their wounds, coiled around the sharks. The water swirled red amid the debris and bits of chum. And the sharks circled, closer each time.
They drew up tight and swam with the dolly a shield against the sharks. Old New York closed in as the temperature plummeted and the light failed. Marnie’s limbs jellied. The eye was passing, and the rendezvous was nowhere close. And then, suddenly, the sharks scattered. Marnie raked her eyes through the agitated water, squinting against the gloom.
“Hell,” Jessa finished.
A great white tore through the city, its eyes glinting in the waning light. Marnie grabbed her spear, but the shark was fast. And massive. She rolled and slashed wildly. Blood bloomed in the water, and a long slice opened along the shark’s flank.
The great white disappeared into the murk, but tailed them—nosing dangerously close above, beside, below—as they raced above the seaweed-choked remains of Canal Street. The city’s western edge fell away, and Marnie spun in a circle, searching. The winch. It had to be somewhere. Ahead, a faint glow pulsed.
She shouted with relief at the same moment the shark attacked.
Sam burst forward and tackled, his arms wrenching at the beast’s fins. And then he reared back and punched it right in the gills. Marnie’s eyes went wide.
“Your harpoon, you idiot,” she screamed, fumbling to secure the dolly. But Sam only punched the shark again.
Marnie grabbed her harpoon and aimed, searching for an opening in the frenzy of fins and fists. There. A clear shot. She fired, and the shark bolted away trailing crimson.
Sam, the fool, was grinning as he flexed his fists. “Always wanted to do that.”
“Yes, because that’s why we’re here,” Marnie snapped to hide her fear. “Your bucket list.”
Sam pointed at himself. “Sam one; shark zero.”
Marnie clipped the final pieces of rigging into place and jammed her boots into footholds. “It’s about to be Laron plus three if we don’t get out of here.”
The winch heaved skyward, and they crested the waves. The wind shattered against them, and that circle of blue sky was only a sliver against a tower of screaming, steel clouds. Marnie’s heartbeat pounded in her throat, her hands clenched the rigging as they swung wide. But slowly, steadily, the jump jet reeled them to safety.
Marnie collapsed against the jet floor, her body heavy with exhaustion. But for once, it was a feeling she exulted. She slid a gold bar into her hand, solid against her palm, full of unimaginable potential. Then Marnie grinned as they ascended above the storm and listened to the hurricane rage.
I uploaded my round two entry for the NYC Midnight competition just under the wire last night. In round one, my group had to write drama. (I came in second place in my group with THE BRIGHTNESS OF STARS.) For round two, I drew action/adventure, so just a bit of a departure from the first round.
Here’s how round two worked: Like in round one, I was given a new group and a new prompt. But this time I had only three days to write a story of up to 2,000 words. My prompt was: Adventure/Hurricane/Scuba Diver.
One of my writing flaws is that I sometimes try to do too much in too little of a space. My first draft of this round’s story suffered from that, but with some great editing suggestions and a whole lot of restructuring, I think I ended up with a fun adventure. And sharks! So many hungry, hungry sharks.
I’ll post the story in the next couple days. Until then, here’s the synopsis…
THE OUTER BANK Marnie has just ninety minutes to finish the job: dive into submerged Manhattan, break into the Federal Reserve vault, and make it back to the rendezvous point. All before Hurricane Laron bears down.
So one of the reasons I’m a pretty good freelancer is that I’m quite organized. I don’t flake on projects and I always meet my deadlines. But here’s the thing: I need that deadline. Need. It.
Case in point. For 2011 National Novel Writing Month, I completed a YA steampunk adventure that I kind of fell in love with. Then I set it aside to “marinate” for what was to be a couple months before peeling back the pages—now all marinated and juicy—and digging into a second draft.
A year later, I hadn’t touched the thing. A whole damned year. It’d gotten so smelly and moldy. Why? Because there was no deadline. So in January, I cajoled my husband into giving me a March 31 deadline to get the completed second draft to him, and he threw in a $50 Anthropologie gift card to really sweeten the deal.
And so, my revision, by the numbers. (And by the by, 90 percent of this revision happened in about two weeks … because who doesn’t love stress.)