There are a million places this post could begin. The trip to Paris that didn't happen. The appeal to friends that reminded me, yet again, what a wide range of truly interesting people I'm lucky to know. Then again, it could just as well start in a dorm room on the sixth floor of Dykstra Hall on an otherwise uneventful night in 1996, when, from the room next door, an unfamiliar voice authoritatively yelled out the answer to my question of how many cups is a stick of butter. It's not unusual for me to get mired in options (maybe this is why it's taken me so long to post this damn thing!).
But I'll get to the point. My winter holiday was everything a vacation should be: a restful break enjoying perfect California Christmastime weather with best friends, close family (peppered with a few choice solo moments), and what seems like an unfair amount of laughter. And through all this, I somehow managed to trace the contour of the California coast: the 'big trip' consisted of four days in sweet, cozy Cambria, including a drive up Highway 1 through Big Sur to Monterey, then back through Salinas, home of both John Steinbeck and the best cornbread I've ever had (Seriously amazing stuff. I got a full order for dessert). I came home just in time to drive down to Laguna Beach (delicious dinner party that culminated with the whole house crammed in one room dancing to their own karaoke-ing voices, then beach walk, art gallery, and Zinc Cafe -- really, doesn't suck), then a few days later piled into the car with the parents, the sister, the brother-in-law, and three kiddies, for a day at the Santa Barbara Zoo. It was like a week-and-a-half-long game of peek-a-boo with the Pacific ocean!
But, let's focus on the Cambria part, shall we? So, for as long as I've known my friend Brad (eleven years and counting...aww), I've heard stories about his idyllic youth in the small coastal town. Thanks to his generous invitation, and his darling mom's kind hospitality, Rachel -- another close college friend -- and I spent a few days in his childhood home, hanging out with his mom and sister and having a grand old time. It turns out that Brad's family is a self-contained comedy act: whether we were taking walks through the bluffs overlooking the beach, rolling from winery to winery , opening 'presents' on Christmas morning (Which lucky one did Santa leave a stick of gum for? Who got the bottle of Excedrin?!), or just lounging on the couch, indulgently poring through back issues of Sunset Magazine, we were cracking up the whole time. Who needs expensive spas and retreats? For true relaxation, all you need is a laughing vacation.
We also learned that Brad and his family know every single person in Cambria. From every waiter at cozy Robin's restaurant, to the mailman at the Cambria Pines Lodge -- home of the town's only bar -- everyone is on a first-name, how's-the-family, basis. In fact, when we visited Main Street Grill, the setting of many of Brad's stories of his formative first job (for which I am personally thankful: after all, it is here that he learned the skills that led to my first, glorious encounter with barbecued beef ribs, on the rickety balcony of a dingy college apartment so many summers ago), Brad was so busy schmoozing we hardly saw him at the table.
It was fun to learn a bit about Brad's history: his mom told us stories of her youth in Illinois (how's this math: 2 parents + 6 kids + 2 pies = 1/4 pie per person), and how the family made its way to the west coast. She must have been tickled to be spending her Christmas vacation wowing two Jewish girls from the city with tales from the hog farm -- 4-H and all. And Brad was more than happy to share his more recent past with us -- by way of walking around in his Letterman jacket, along with the biggest grin I've ever seen.
We even managed to fit in some excursions: an afternoon in downtown San Luis Obispo offered a trip to the city's eponymous mission and to the local art gallery, with its awesome exhibit of photos of California's migrant workers. We even made it to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Good lord those otters are cute! One was obsessed with grooming her face and kept smooshing it into adorable expressions.
It's kind of a unique phenomenon: you've heard so much about a place, and the people in it over so many years that it nearly becomes part of your own story. Cambria has long been a member of our circle of friends. Nice to finally spend some quality time.