Sunday, January 22, 2012

California by Car

Whew. We're back. And I have to tell you, it was a very productive trip.

MacTroll and I got to California around noonish on Tuesday and we began our "explore the places people like to live in California" tour. We started at the home of Stanford -- Palo Alto. We ate at the Prolific Oven, which if you ever go -- there's no need to get a baked item, unless the free, small and unexpected slice of cake they give you with your sandwich is a flavor you don't care for. Forty five minutes in California and they were already handing out free cake... Palo Alto was far too congested and expensive and -- college focused -- for me to want to explore any more. So we moved on, but you know -- we'll go back for cake.

We drove over the Dunbarton Bridge to our hotel. MacTroll used his Starwood Points so we stayed for free at the W -- Silicon Valley, well, we were supposed to stay for free... I had looked at the hotel and thought it was way out of the way, and I was right. If there is such a thing, this is a "Lesser W." It's surrounded by abandoned or never-filled office complexes and it's $150 cab ride from SFO to get there. They jacked up our bill by giving us some random $50 surcharge per night over the taxes that we weren't supposed to have. The elevator key fob was iffy as to whether it would work or not and the part of the bay you over look is basically a giant mud pit with lots of shorebirds. So, if you're a bird watcher... go for it. If not. Stay the hell away. There is no point to be in Fremont, Calif., if you don't have to be. MacTroll wrote a letter to the manager, and he was very good at giving back our $100 and gave MacTroll 3,000 more points as an apology. But still... no one welcomed you. No one was at the door. The restaurant was just a room with random tables. It lacked. In a lot of ways...particularly in comparison to other W hotels.

After we dropped off our stuff, we drove down to San José and checked out the Rose Garden neighborhood. The houses are nice, pretty affordable for California, but the schools aren't really as fabulous as some of the other places we were looking. Where we were looking at homes it was easy to walk to schools, but not so easy to walk to businesses like a grocery store.

Then we went to Willow Glen. I had high hopes for it. And I wasn't let down. Willow Glen has a nice downtown area that is more meant for carry out and quick eating with kids than for date night. This is fine because it's also only 2 miles away from downtown San José and there's a CalTrain that runs up to San Francisco, if you want to go up there for a weekend and not have to pay to park or deal with traffic on 280 or 101. It's 9 miles away from the Fruit. And two of MacTroll's colleagues live in the area. There is a main street (Lincoln Avenue) that has a wealth of independent businesses, a lot of big bank branches, a Starbucks, a BevMo and some gyms/spas. There was also a kid's bookstore, where we stopped to get a gift for X-man (He's wild about Mo Willems these days) and a toy store up the street. There were also THREE frozen yogurt places that were like mini versions of Cocomero in Champaign. There were kids (mostly middle schoolers) walking around. That night we had dinner at MacTroll's boss' house in the area. It was nice to get to know them, and I consumed more wine that night than I had in my life.

On Wednesday morning, we visited Booksin Elementary and were given a wonderful tour by their assistant principal. It was one of the few non-uniform required schools in San José. The teachers were very welcoming and the children were very friendly. We got to see what an average school day looks like for a Booksin student and tour the classrooms, library and computer lab.

We'll have to get used to the open air campus. To go anywhere, you have to go outside, and it doesn't matter if it's raining. Lunch is usually outside on picnic tables under some sun screens right next to a small grove of redwoods. Plus, there's an organic garden project that looks like it's being copied by some other schools in the area. We liked Willow Glen. It was clean, easy to walk around and had walking access to groceries on both sides of the hood. People took care of their homes, too. Finding a place we felt comfortable in was a big sigh of relief and also a cause of tension. Here's the thing that I like about schools of choice. You can -- mostly -- live anywhere in a town you want to live and send your child to any school in the city. San José has neighborhood schools, which focuses your house search to a certain 20x20 block area. But what happens if a house your size and in your budget doesn't go up for sale at the right time. Then what do you do? That's a timing issue... uncontrollable.

In terms of housing, we're looking at the potential of having a house that is 1/2 the size of ours (around 1700 square feet) for about double the price. We did a practice run during rush hour to downtown San José from Willow Glen. You have to go under a major highway, so the neighborhoods get a little sketchy. Some roads do have bike paths though, so that's worth some exploration because it took us 30 minutes to go 5 miles in a care due to us hitting EVERY stop light we came to. The lights were obviously VERY long and, therefore, VERY annoying. We'll also need to explore the bus and light rail options going on over there, should I find work downtown.

After Willow Glen, we drove down to Cambrian Park. We drove around some neighborhoods and schools there. The schools got good marks, but the neighborhoods were more beat up and there was no business district to walk to.

A lot of MacTroll's co-workers sent him down to Los Gatos. And the neighborhoods were nicer, and the schools received good reviews and marks, but it wasn't a cozy community, it was a concrete suburb. There were lots of people driving to the same chain stuff you can get here. There were large shopping complexes versus the small, independent stores of Willow Glen.

Then we toured Saratoga. It has more of a 1970s California feel. And, um, from what I can tell, the people currently in the area probably had young families in 1970. It had the same walk around feeling as Willow Glen, but more the Boomer Generation than ours. It would be a lovely place to go to dinner. But the pricing was twice of that as Willow Glen.

Around lunch time we went to Cupertino. MacTroll took me around the neighborhoods where he jogs. Cupertino's highest rated schools are only available via a lottery system, which I refuse to take part in. Plus, we could afford a fancy 2-bedroom duplex for what we could get a single family home for in Willow Glen. So, um. No. We did, however, eat at a fun burger restaurant called The Counter. You fill out a slip of paper with what you want on it. It's totally custom and they have vegetarian options, which was fabulous. It's in a large shopping complex near MacTroll's favorite hotel the Valencia. There is an outside area called Santana Row (one of the large Row complexes was being built in Virginia just before we moved) and then there was a mall next to it. I wish I had enough energy to shop while we were there because they had all the stores you'd ever want to shop at. Even the kids area had a Lego Store next to a Build-a-Bear next to the Nestle Tollhouse Cookie booth (Yeah, I know I can make those at home.), next to a Hello Kitty Store, etc. We also stopped by the Fruit Campus and picked up some Fruit gear for X-man and my Dad.

By now we were pooped, so we drove all the way back to Fremont and took a nap. :-) The next morning we checked out and started our drive up to Mendocino to the Stanford Inn by the Sea, a Vegan resort on the coastline in the middle of nowhere.

But first we had breakfast in Berkeley, which, as a town, was a bit more seedy and a lot less hippie than I was expecting but the café was awesome. And then we stopped for an hour-long walk through Muir Woods. And it was at this point that I began to get excited about the idea of living in California. There's a whole new range of places to explore there. 1,000 year old redwoods, banana slugs, marine life, geology... it's just different. I'll never have to put up with the boys wondering what they should do on a Sunday when I need them out of the house for a few hours. Outdoor activities can be year round. It won't be better. It'll just be -- different, and as X-man grows older, I can see the wealth of opportunity that kind of diversity can offer him. Well, that, and if you know me, you know I like all things soft and fuzzy. And the moss on these trees was softer than my Clawdio cat. And that's saying something...

After Muir we drove north to Healdsburg, where we stopped at Ridge Vineyards so MacTroll could do a tasting. We purchased two bottles of wine and had them sent to my Dad's house in Rockford as a thank you to him for taking care of X-man this week. Then we started a very long and windy track down 128 to Mendocino.

For the record, I loved the Stanford I wish we had more than one night there, and I wish it wasn't 40 degrees with a torrential downpour because then we totally could have explored the parks nearby. I do cold and I do rainy but I don't do cold and rainy. Instead, we enjoyed a small view of the ocean from our room that was warmed by a real wood fireplace, some outrageously good vegan food and I had a 50-minute massage that the therapist extended to 75 minutes, probably just because I was so crippled from sitting in the car so long. The other icky part is that I get easily car sick on windy roads... and it takes about 75 minutes to get from 101 to Mendocino... entirely on windy roads. He had to stop every 30 or 40 minutes for me to get out and walk around and eat or drink something until the nausea would settle. MacTroll was wondering what people in the area who didn't own sheep farms or vineyards did for a living way out there. When we passed the road clean up sign the organization assigned to part of the road was the "Medicinal Marijuana Growers' Association" suddenly, he didn't have to wonder any more.

Our last night in California was spent in downtown San Francisco. It's not a friendly city by nature. But the Le Meridien in the Financial District was nice and the workers there didn't mess with our bill. They upgraded MacTroll to a corner suite with a view of the Bay Bridge. We spent an hour exploring City Lights Bookstore, where I admit that I took photos of all the books I liked so I could get them at the library. Then we had dinner at an Italian restaurant, went home, watched last week's episode of Castle and fell asleep.

It was a lot of here and there in a car. MacTroll used his points for that, too. We ended up with some kind of red, convertible Mustang for five days that we drove almost 600 miles. We obviously paid for the gas we used (particularly at a premium of $5.50 a gallon -- we got only 4 gallons -- in Mendocino where they know they have you by the short and curlies) but the car itself was only $50.

The flight home was nothing exciting. And now I'm sitting in my living room, with a fire in my fire place and a puppy asleep at my feet. I'm glad I have an extra day to get back into the groove before starting back to work.

So there you go. We'll see where we are next year at this time... and if we're putting our house up for sale. But it's good to know what we like and didn't like about each area.

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