Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Awesome Adventures


I would be feeling pretty tired right now, if I didn't feel like such a wuss in comparison to the professional athletes I've been watching. I've just come off a fun, quick, unusual vacation that combined the best of all worlds: time with family, sightseeing, relaxing, and ample excitement.

I've previously attended the Tour of California, a new professional cycling race that is now entering its third year. It combines my established love of California with my growing love of cycling. In previous years, my Dad and I have enjoyed chatting about the race as it unfolded; this year, his schedule worked out such that he was able to come out and watch the race (at least the first portion of it) with me.

Dad came out on Friday, arriving almost half an hour early. He left Illinois when it was cold and snowy, and emerged from the plane into a brilliantly clear and warm California day. We swung by Twist Cafe for lunch, a nice little French cafe that I've wanted to eat at but never have. Well, not exactly. I ordered the Tri-Tip Sandwich, which believe it or not I've been desiring for about two years. We had a leisurely lunch and chat, then he got to chill in my apartment while I wrapped up the work day. As a bonus, I discovered that the contractors had fixed my porch door, thus allowing me access to the outside!

Among the many reasons I enjoy visitors, it gives me a chance to try out some food options that would be tricky to cook for myself. I had my eye on two recent recipes from Cook's Illustrated: Chicken Saltimboca and Fluffy Yellow Cake. The cake (with chocolate frosting) is my favorite cake, and has been since my childhood, though I have only had it from a box mix; the Saltimboca just sounded really good. My attempt at the cake was prematurely thwarted. Can you believe that neither Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, nor Safeway carries Dutch-process cocoa? Yes, granted, until a year ago I wouldn't have even known what that was. Still! It annoys me. I had to shelve their chocolate frosting recipe, and without the frosting there's no sense in making the cake.

The Saltimboca was a go, though. I had to make my own cutlets, but even with that it was relatively simple to make. The end result is really rich, though: sage-infused chicken wrapped with prosciutto and topped with a lemony wine sauce. We paired it with simple roasted butternut squash puree and persimmons. Good California eating! For dessert, we worked our way through some oatmeal cookies I've stashed away.

The race wasn't starting until Sunday, so we had all of Saturday to play. Dad was game for hiking, so we journeyed out to Henry Coe park. This is probably my favorite park in the area, but it is far enough that I don't make it there as often as I would like. It's been in the news lately due to appearing on Governor Schwarzenegger's list of proposed parks to close. That would be a travesty... it's one of the most beautiful parts of a beautiful state.

Anyways! I sort of cobbled together a hike from a few routes I'd taken before. We hit the Corral Trail out from Headquarters, then did the Forest Trail. I'd just recently done this trail, but I think it's a perfect orientation to the park and California nature in general... it really is a microcosm of the species and principles you'll encounter. From there we hiked all the way down Poverty Flats Road, which isn't nearly as painful as hiking UP it, as I've done every other time. The highlight of the hike was an ascent up Middle Ridge, a steep elevation gain but one that afforded us some wonderful views, including some soaring eagles and even more impressive views.

Saturday night and every other night, we continued the March Through Chris's Freezer o' Leftovers. This time it was Hearty Tuscan Bean Stew, another CI dish. Baked potatoes and more persimmons filled out the meal.

Sunday is race day! After a visit to Menlo Park Presbyterian, we hopped several blocks east to Palo Alto. I haven't spent much time there, but have visited twice in the last several months, and so had a decent feel for the layout. We parked in a lot and wandered downtown. Even though it would be nearly three hours until the race started, several hundred people were already walking the streets. We had plenty of time to explore the city and the university, which I gleefully took advantage of, finally getting to see the Rodin Sculpture Garden and other points at Stanford. For lunch, we got two of the tastiest gyros ever (vegetarian/falafel and beef+lamb) and ate them while sitting on a sun-soaked curb, cheering riders in the Mayor's Charity Race.

The Prologue was a good chance to catch individual racers up-close during their time trials. We wandered up and down the length of the route, which stretched from downtown to the Stanford oval. Last year I'd cheered for Bryce Mead on his ascent up Telegraph Hill; this year, Dad got to holler "ABD!" when he approached the starting line. I'm regularly impressed by how close to the racers you can get at these things.

The race wrapped up a bit after 3. Levi didn't repeat his earlier win, but had a very respectable finish. The crowd was generally appreciative.

Speaking of which, I was impressed by the turnout. This is the first year that Palo Alto has been involved in the Tour, which has started up in the City the last two years. Because of this it doesn't have the sort of history established that other cities have, and I'd expect turnout to be smaller. It's hard to judge the size of crowds, especially when they're as spread out as they are for a race, but I thought it was pretty comparable to what San Francisco saw. Even better than the size, people throughout the week were enthusiastic and appreciative. I think a lot of people are like me and only vaguely aware of the intricacies of the sport, but we still enjoy it greatly.

Almost from the time I moved out here, I've wanted to visit the Stanford Theater, a restored classic movie theater. We lucked out, since Dad's visit coincided with their Hitchcock festival: two and a half months of movies covering the entire span of his career. My tastes are fickle, but I usually count Hitchcock as one of my three favorite directors of all time, along with Gilliam and Kubrick. Anyways! Sunday night's film was Spellbound, which I hadn't seen before. (Random note: on the rare occasion I blog about films, I think I'll start linking to Wikipedia instead of IMDB. IMDB has seniority, but I've never really liked their site design, and their advertising is increasingly annoying. Now that Wikipedia's just as informative, they're my new go-to for movie info.) It was a great movie, more in line with The Man who Knew Too Much than Psycho. Let me emphasize that: it was a GREAT movie. It seemed specifically designed to appeal to me. Dream sequences? Designed by Salvador Dali? First use of the theremin in a film? Madcap psychologists? It's all in there, baby!

As a bonus, after the movie we got to enjoy a few pieces performed live on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Good times!

Dinner Sunday night: a white chicken chili.

Monday, President's Day, was a free day off work, the first stage of the race proper, and the start of our rumspringa. After my near-disastrous experience in Sausalito last year, we got an early start to the day, working our way down the steep roads a good hour or so before the start. After evading some surprisingly rude drivers, we snagged a parking spot by a church and walked down to Bridgeway. One of the reasons we had come early was to attend the Bike Expo, but it was a bit of a let-down... just some repackaged booths that we had seen before, set under a big tent. After making the rounds we struck out for Caledonia, where they would be making several parade routes.

We semi-accidentally stumbled onto the eastern edge of Caledonia and established ourselves one block west of the turn. It was a phenomenal position, the first of several we would get... we got to see the riders as they came down on Bridgeway, then again seconds later after they rounded the tight turn into Caledonia and accelerated towards us. This was repeated several times, allowing for multiple shots with the camera as well as ample cheering opportunities. Feeling the peleton rush by is, well, quite a rush!

Our next destination: Santa Rosa. While the cyclists would work their way north along Highway 1, we took the speedy shortcut along 101, where we made pretty good time into Sonoma County. We arrived in Santa Rosa with plenty of time to spare, then squandered it when I drove around semi-aimlessly looking for parking. I'd latched onto a fragment of a sentence on the Santa Rosa race web site describing parking at "The Fairgrounds", failed to locate it, then killed nearly an hour while getting lost. In retrospect I should have just grabbed a spot at a garage... it would have been cheaper than the gas I burned going in circles. We missed the Women's Criterium (except for a brief glimpse while waiting for the Longest Left Turn Arrow in the Universe), but after parking and catching Rosie the Trolley, we still arrived with ample time. The crowd here was just enormous, probably the largest and most enthusiastic of any city we would see. We realized there was no way we'd see anything near the finish line, but by moving just a few blocks away we scored yet another killer location, immediately after a hard right turn on a final loop through the city. I steered us towards Traverso's for lunch, and was shocked - shocked! - to see that they were closed. On President's Day! It was a blessing in disguise, though, since that steered us towards some very tasty Chicken Tikka Masala served by a smiling vendor outside a "Curry in a Hurry" store. Warm, filling, and utterly tasty, it came with generous saffron rice and naan.

We could tell when the riders were approaching by the enormous roar that came from the crowd. Soon - poof! - the racers where in front of us, pumping furiously. In a moment they were gone, but the vocal appreciation continued.

After the stage finished, we worked our way towards the podium for the awards. We couldn't see much, but did get to hear all of the jerseys awarded and the overall standings. Even though Levi wasn't on top this year, the crowd was still into it, applauding all the riders for their work.

We ambled back to the intersection of Santa Rosa and Sonoma, where we caught the last trolley of the day. Next we headed towards our hotel, the Flamingo. It's an interesting place! The staff were friendly, the facade fascinating, and our room was really comfortable. As a strange bonus, it included a second, unadvertised bedroom/closet with two narrow beds laid head to foot. It was useless to us, but would have been perfect on a family trip.

We were both pretty tired - Dad from lack of sleep, me from driving - so we chilled in our hotel the rest of the night. The exception was dinner, which we selected after one of the longest (albeit most pleasant) food deliberations I've had outside of conversations with Pat. After considering and evaluating a half-dozen possibilities, our own tastes, level of hunger, and aptitude for travel, we settled on Hank's Creekside Restaurant, which was across the street. And, it turns out, closed. D'oh! But, simply by re-crossing the street, we landed at Lyon's, a classic diner from the 1950's. It was a supremely comfortable place with surprisingly good food. I had a reuben sandwich with potato salad, Dad took an interesting Southwest salad.

We liked Lyon's so much that we hit it again for breakfast the next morning. I stayed boring and took a combination of French toast, fruit, and a small Denver omelet, while Dad got a more substantial mushroom omelet. Thus fueled, we stepped out into the rain and headed east.

Since we had caught both the beginning and the end of a stage by now, we wanted to next see the middle portion of a race. The best-looking candidate was the first King of the Mountain, located at the peak of a grueling climb up Trinity Grade. The steepness of the mountain would break up the peleton, giving us some drama, as well as a slower pace by the riders so we could see them more clearly. Neither of us had any idea how early we should get there, but since racing was at the top of our agenda, we got an early start and headed right there.

I'm glad that we did. Even though it would be a few hours before the riders came, several people had already staked out their spots along Trinity. I was tempted to join them, but from our careful examination of the race route (thank you, iPhone!), I knew that our best shot was to push on towards Cavedale. We arrived, pulled a little bit forward to park the car, and then had a short walk back to the KOM. An intermittent drizzle was keeping us cool as we settled in to wait.

It was a very different environment and crowd than the cities we'd been in before, but was probably even more entertaining. We watched in disbelief at the vehicles that were attempting to navigate the narrow, twisty mountain roads, and chatted with fellow spectators who were following the race. By now we were out of the weekend and out of the holiday, so casual fans had gone back to work and the dedicated ones remained. We talked with a photographer who had come down from Oregon to watch; others had come from as far as Denver or even Virginia. The ToC is really establishing itself, and it's very cool to see it becoming a real destination race.

Throughout the wait, riders regularly pedaled their way up the slopes. I was and remain very impressed. I have only limited experience with steep climbing, and am always thwarted in my attacks on Hicks Road, so I can really appreciate the great physical strength it takes to tackle these insanely steep roads.

The size of the crowd swelled, lining all parts of the road several layers deep. We had arrived early enough to land a prime position, on the outside of the sharp left turn at Cavedale. People were up on the slopes, climbing trees, even perching on top of a Winnebago. Eventually, they closed down the road, and then the only traffic we saw consisted of Tour vehicles and cyclists.

A Toyota van came by and handed out noisemakers and chalk. I inscribed my section of pavement with the sigil of the Illuminati. An SUV equipped with loudspeakers then pulled in - in a great and classy move, the Tour was sending announcers in advance of the riders. He filled us in on the story of the day - how Scott Nydam was making a solo attack, being chased by Jackson Stewart, also riding solo. Now, Dad and I were actually abreast of this (thank you, iPhone!), but almost nobody else would have known it. Anyways, it was just very generous of them, and helped keep the spectators pumped up and informed.

Scott eventually pulled up to a rousing set of cheers. There was some good theater going on - two runners, each carrying a California state flag, ran alongside him for the last fifty meters or so up to the KOM. With thunderous applause, he claimed the prize and pushed on. Later we would learn that he went on to win all the bonuses - both KOMs and both Sprints - although he would finally be caught before arriving in Sacramento.

There was plenty more racing to watch before that, though. We gave Jackson just as big a hand when he came through... what he was doing was every bit as difficult as Scott. After him came the mass of riders, then a few stragglers picking up the rear. After the broom wagon moved through, the party broke up and we headed back to the car.

I really enjoy driving in the mountains, and had an especially fun time coming down Cavedale. It's really a one-lane road that happens to have traffic coming in both directions. And is really twisty, steep, and has pavement in poor condition. Awesome driving! We swung back to Santa Rosa, where we refueled at a nifty little pizza place I found on Yelp called Rosso Pizzeria. It was pretty expensive, but REALLY tasty, a true gourmet California pizza place with unusual toppings made from local ingredients. I had a pizza with creamy roasted garlic, fresh mozarella, spring onions and caramelized onions; Dad took a meatier and even tastier pizza. We enjoyed a leisurely and peaceful meal before coming back to hit the road.

For variety's sake, I took an alternate route home suggested by Google that took us on 580 over and down the east side of the Bay. This included my first trip on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, bringing my total number of crossed Bay-area bridges up to 3. We just flew down the bridge - granted, it was in the early afternoon so of course traffic was light, but I was still impressed. Compared with the Bay Bridge, which has five traffic lanes in each direction, this has only two. Also, I didn't see a tollbooth anywhere. Maybe it's all FastTrack-only? Anyways, it was cool to catch yet another part of the area. Our trip down 980 and 880 was uneventful, although we did get to appreciate the nice green Diablo hills.

Arriving back in San Jose in the middle afternoon, we had ample daylight left, and decided to hit the Museum of Art downtown. I hadn't been previously, so it was fun to finally get inside. I'm glad I went... it isn't a really impressive museum on the same order as SFMOMA or the Art Institute in Chicago, but still has a good collection of contemporary art that focuses on works by Californian artists. My favorite was probably a piece by a Los Angeles artist depicting a street corner in Santa Monica as seen from the air. There were also some really interesting pieces, including a video installation of a breathing rose and a foreboding photograph of row homes abutting a rail line.

There were two special exhibits running, organized around a common theme of sketches. The first, and for my money more interesting, was Goya's Caprichos. This was a collection of engravings he did, often featuring grotesque and disturbing images. Each was presented with commentary that gave different interpretations of the work. Many of the caprichos gave thinly-veiled criticism of the church, while others attacked royalty, attitudes towards women, child discipline, and more. The overall effect was quite dark, but I found it fascinating.

The second collection was of Picasso's love sketches. These were all non-representative drawings, generally of nude women, often in scenes of desire. It was cool to see another side of this incredibly versatile artist's output, but at the same time, they often felt dashed-off... the overall effect was a little bit like listening to a studio outtake from a favorite musician. It's cool to get more insight into how the creative mind works, but the piece doesn't stand on its own as well as the studio album.

And then, home! Tuesday was yet another relaxing evening. We capped off the Journey through Christopher's Freezer with some reheated French Onion Soup. That night I introduced Dad to the wonders of The IT Crowd. A lot.

Wednesday the race would run from Modesto to San Jose, but Dad's relatively early flight meant he wouldn't be able to catch the finish. The day was far from wasted, though. We both caught up on some of the sleep we'd missed earlier, had a leisurely breakfast of Swiss oatmeal, and headed out for a final walk. We went to the Don Edwards preserve, another bayfront park that I hadn't been to before. Evidently, this was the first urban refuge in the United States, and its facilities are quite nice. The five-mile walk we had our eyes set on, around the Slough, turned out to be a no-go... part of the trail was torn up for restoration. We took it for a mile or so, admiring both the pretty views and the shocking slag bordering the water. We picked up the Tidelands Trail for a loop back to headquarters.

In-n-Out isn't mandatory in the same way that Southern Kitchen is, but it's highly recommended for out-of-staters, and so I was happy that we got to hit one for lunch en route to the airport. I introduced Dad to fries Animal Style and to the hidden messages on the packaging. From there, it was a smooth and short drive to good old SJC, where I reluctantly put him on a plane back home. We're already thinking about future Tours.

Postscript: I did make it to downtown San Jose to catch the finish, and was happy to do so. The crowd wasn't as large or loud as in Santa Rosa, but again, considering this was a workday afternoon, I was impressed by the turnout. They did a great job of announcing the race on its way into town, and it was my best shot yet at getting close to the finish line. It had a dramatic finish, with Levi tailing another rider into town, winning second place for the stage and vaulting into the yellow jersey for the first time in 2008. We do love our stars, and Levi is an easy person to love. Let Levi ride!


  1. Sounds awesome! Next year I think I'll come out and do that ...

    Don't forget Southern Kitchen!