Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sarah the Brave

Unwitting is My Favorite Kind of Irony

Two weeks ago I came across the fodder for this post: an in-flight magazine article by fellow writer (fellow meaning she writes for magazines and I would like to write for magazines) Sarah Twain (not her real surname). Since then my head has been spinning with images I've been itching to get down on paper before they lose whatever small measure of their original incisive hilarity.

My ideas, unlike wine and easy listening radio, don't get better with age.

I'd have gotten to this sooner if not for the more pressing priorities I've recently imposed upon myself, like getting my novel ready for printing, making sure my son doesn't swallow any more of Thomas the Tank Engine's buddies, and getting to 200 friends on facebook. There just isn't enough time in the day. If I ever get a job this blog will really be done for.

To be completely forthright, the novel still isn't quite ready, but there I'm in a bit of a holding pattern as my patient friend Ron sorts through a few niggling formatting details for me so I won't have to. A fine attitude for a guy starting his own publishing company, I know, but I've lost track of the number of little plastic train pieces there are supposed to still be around here. Plus the tornado of inspiration of two weeks ago is down to a wispy breeze of erstwhile wit; this post will simply die if I wait longer. As will, I'm sure, both of the people who know I'm keeping this blog.

In a previous post I mentioned my unabashed affinity for airline magazines...

...and not only the ones with the sudoku still intact. Really, I enjoy panning the pages of Hemispheres or Horizons or Turbulence for the travel articles that are usually at least entertaining enough to help me forget about the four hundred dollar fuel surcharge on this plane ticket I can't afford. And I like to dive in before drink service starts and I lose all powers of concentration, so I've developed the insidious but effective habit of handing my son the emergency instruction pamphlet and telling him to start pointing to each of the ninety-eight pictures and graphics and asking my wife ‘What is this?’

Flying back to Japan two weeks ago I came across the travel article I expound upon below with the exquisite grace of your regular everyday frustrated guy from New Jersey. It was certainly entertaining, this voyeuristic trip to California's wine country, albiet in the same way as when I saw for the first time Obama speaking without a teleprompter.

It began with a photo of a misty beach spread over two pages, wild golden grass creeping toward the sand and the flat surf. ‘Three Perfect Days in Sonoma’ proclaimed the author, further teasing me with promises like ‘rugged valleys that are just now tame enough to conquer.’ This Sarah seems like my kind of girl I mumbled to myself as my son moved his finger over to the image of a cell phone with a red X over it and asked my wife ‘What is this?’

In the bottom corner of the page the bullet points for the first two days consisted of (1) sipping pinot and (2) eating oysters. Day three included seal-spotting. I guessed Sarah just wanted to start us off slowly instead of tossing us headlong into the heart-pounding conquering-the-rugged-bits.

Hope and Expections Summarily Dashed

The next page was entirely dedicated to a photo of the pool at Sarah's hotel. Then I read the first line of the article – ‘Wander the streets of affluent Healdsburg’ – and I knew that Sarah the Rugged must be one slick writer, fooling me into thinking my three days would be all glazed shopping strips and poolside nips of chardonnay before tossing me into the water at Big Sur.

'The original settlers of the Sonoma valley,' she explained, 'were lumbermen and farmers who made wine on the side, more as family tradition than as a commercial endeavor.' Okay, so maybe we'll be chopping wood and operating heavy farm machinery I tried to assure myself despite the photograph of one of Healdsburg's streets, cleaner than Disneyland and every bit as precise as a Williams & Sonoma mail-order catalog.

I was ready for the ruggedest Sonoma could give me.

But then our tour with Sarah began.

‘Step out onto your balcony at the understatedly chic room at the Hotel Healdsburg,’ wrote Sarah the Intrepid. Farm trucks 'purr' along the street, she adds, though we wouldn't be doing anything quite so rash as touching something that so recently had dirt on it. Instead we'd be heading down to the hotel lobby for some fresh granola (fresh from the box I'm gathering) and sliced fruit laid out like a mosaic in the Basilica di San Pietro. Outside we'd spot a small group of ‘spandex-clad athletes’ (a phrase which probably gives the correct visual) getting ready for a day of biking the wine country. Cool, I say to myself. Biking. ‘What is this?’ my son says to my wife. But then Sarah the Wise advises I take a walk around Beverly Healdsburg (her words) before I ‘embark on anything quite so ambitious.’ I could only squirm in my seat and keep reading.

The rest of our first day would include visiting a bookstore (beautiful Sonoma, Sarah the Learned counsels, also has brains), running our hands 'lovingly' over some copper cookware, stopping by the organic Love Farms market to see a display of ‘heirloom tomatoes’ (big deal, I've got half a casserole that's been in the family since Grandma), driving a Mercedes SLK55 convertible (automatic transmission to save your strength) to go pick up a Brie and olive sandwich for lunch (drive-thru if possible), having a 'picnic' on one of the teak tables on the patio at a vineyard, taking a guided tour at a second vineyard, then scurrying back to the hotel to relax in the hot tub or ‘indulge in a quick nap on your crisp Frette linens’. Sarah the Circumspect understands I might not be up to her level of ruggedness at this stage of our odyssey, I figure. I need to ease into our wine country crusade. The remains of Day One are best spent tackling 'the formidable five-course meal waiting in the hotel restaurant.'

I try to tell myself that is just Sonoma-speak – or Sarah-speak – for a high-carb pre-workout scarf-fest.

Next up is a full-page shot of a path disappearing into a thick forest. The first word that comes to mind when I see a trail through the woods is ‘run’ – as in take off running down the trail and don't stop until you feel yourself reaching that moment that only other people who have run until reaching that moment can understand. The first word Sarah the Supercilious thinks of when she sees a wooded trail, I imagine, is bug spray.

Day Two begins with some 'serious' coffee and a croissant. We've checked out of our understatedly chic hotel, but I don't see any camping gear for our trip into the rugged valley – as if there were any room in our little ragtop coupe what with the guide, the masseuse and the guy in the turtleneck who speaks fluent wine taking up the back seat. We'll be checking into a 'luxurious' (I already checked, this is not a synonym for rugged) room at the Farmhouse Inn, the perfect name of course for a ‘stylish Russian River idyll’ complete with a concierge (thank God we don't have to go find anything on our own out on one of the three roads out there). But before this, we will push ourselves to the limit with a stop at yet another winery to pick up some zinfandel mustard, then go for Drakes Bay oysters on the half shell at a place Sarah the Embellisher tries to pass off as 'urbane yet rustic.' I don't know if I've ever had Drakes Bay oysters – I don't even know what that means – but I get the sense they and the word rustic don't quite belong in the same area code. One more winery (remember, you're driving) for a breezy chat with the resident winemakers about traditional barrel-making and wine-stomping (Sarah the Uncalloused is thoroughly experienced in the art of chatting about traditional arts). Then back to the Farmhouse Hilton for a dip in the pool. Finally, a stop at reception to get set up with a complimentary salt scrub and milk bath because (I swear I am not making this up, these are Sarah the Lionhearted's exact words), ‘you've earned it.’ You've earned it! God be praised you hale and hearty adventurer, alive and well after a most intrepid expedition to the remotest, wildest realms known to man!

After a dinner including fig pizza, something called Black Pig Salumi and, of course, some pinot noir, kick back on the lanai and breathe in the scents of the herb garden.

I don't think I can take any more, but on Day Three Sarah the Relentless presses on. 'Go for a drive along River Road,' she commands, and ‘note the various trapped-in-time motels tucked into the shadows of enormous redwoods and feel happily relieved you've arranged fancier digs.’

Next to the word rugged in Sarah the Deluded's dictionary is a picture of someone having to press the elevator button themselves.

But wait! At Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve Sarah the Conqueror is getting out of the car! God be praised! She's going for a walk!

‘Here in the dim woods,’ she says, referring apparently to the bright green forest in the photo on the opposite page, ‘you're eerily alone.’ On a fence-lined woodchip path that makes a meticulously-raked Japanese temple rock garden look like downtown Port-au-Prince. But then, ‘feeling ready for human contact (since no one has handed us a slice of Gouda in nearly twenty minutes), hop back in the Mercedes.’ Lunch is a West County burger with fried leeks on a roadside picnic table overlooking the coast (too little too late Sarah) followed by a drive along the ‘perilous, cliff-hugging Highway 1’ (Hey Sarah the Carsick, talk to me after you try taking a night bus out of La Paz). ‘Stay on the lookout for stray cows’ warns Sarah the Crocodile Hunter as she brings me toward Salt Point State Park's Stump Beach, where there is a sign that reads ‘Strong Backwash. Sleeper Waves. Rip Currents.’

If Sarah decides to go swimming then all is forgiven.

'Watch the surf and the occasional seal.’ Did she forget to mention the ‘from the cedar deck while sipping a merlot in your leather patio chair’ or is this something we should just assume by now? ‘The air is a bit cooler here than in Healdsburg, so head back to the Mercedes and put up the top.’ Aw, is Sawah the Wugged getting a widdle chiwwy? We get on Skaggs Spring Road, ‘a byway so remote that signs warn you in advance to make sure you're gassed up.’ From there Sarah the Ultimate Survivor arrives back at the Farmhouse Inn to (I absolutely swear these are her words) ‘freshen up before dinner’ – a real backwoods-style meal of Gruyere potato gratin and beef tenderloin. Served, of course, with wine. Poured by someone else.

And with that, rugged traveler, the unforgiving road comes to a merciful end.

Don't get me wrong, I am not at all against a relaxing few days in wine country. Sounds pretty darn good, actually. But when someone like Sarah the Manure Spreader tries to make a high-dollar weekend of wine, food and salt baths sound like a Jules Verne novel I have to call her on it.

Of course, this is all just to hide my envy. Sarah the Writer is getting her stuff in airline magazines while I'm trying to explain the concept of a life raft to a two-year-old, the wife having fled to the bathroom.

'Daddy, what is this?'...

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