Monday, April 7, 2008

3 -- Wine Country

We arrived in the Alexander Valley in California’s wine country on March 31. We settled into a beautiful space at the Russian River campground, which is nestled in a narrow canyon full of oak and manzanita along the river a few miles north of Cloverdale.

Cloverdale is a nice little Mayberry kind of town, but with evidence of good planning and strict sign controls, with the exception of Pick's Drive-in, which was obviously "grandfathered in". After being dragged behind the RV for 800+ miles, the Honda was very dirty. Thanks to a do-it-yourself car wash, Ron managed to get it reasonably clean for only eight quarters. That left us with enough pocket change for a couple deluxe burgers at Pick’s, an authentic 50’s style burger joint. Delicious!

Budding vineyards and scattered wineries cover the rolling hills and valley floor of the Alexander Valley and the neighboring Sonoma and Napa Valleys. We took the Honda on a self-guided driving tour of the valley for a close-up view (and taste) of the grape-based economy. We started at the River Rock Casino, a huge complex sitting high on a hillside and visible for miles. Three five-story parking structures and a fleet of tour buses from the Bay Area filled the casino with people, cigarette smoke and noise. We joined the Players Club (free) and cashed in some visitor vouchers that got us an excellent two-for-one lunch buffet and $30 worth of free gambling, which we managed to lose in about five minutes before escaping.

The grassy hills are bright green this time of year, the grapes are just getting started and the country drive was very pleasant. We bought some oranges and avocados at a little roadside stand before entering the town of Healdsburg (pop. 11,700). It’s also a very attractive community with a people-friendly town square surrounded by attractive shops, restaurants, antique stores, lots of wine tasting rooms and people talking on cell phones.

We could have stayed at Russian River another week or two, but it was time to move on. Figuring out how to get from Highway 101 to our next campground near Manteca proved to be a challenge. To avoid the dreaded Bay Area traffic and congestion, we plotted a 15-step course that followed mostly winding narrow country roads around the north side of San Pablo Bay, and eventually to I-80, I-680, I-580, I-5 and eventually to Turtle Beach RV Park. It was a strenuous exercise in highway navigation but Bonnie juggled the maps gracefully and gave good accurate directions while Ron dodged the truckers. We didn't miss a turn.

Turtle Beach is on the San Joaquin River, a few miles south of Manteca. We arrived early enough to go into town, do a little shopping at Wal-Mart and relax with an excellent Mexican dinner. [Note: Thanks to a misspelling long ago, Manteca means “lard” in Spanish.] This is a quick rest stop. Tomorrow morning we’ll head for Buck Owens territory (Bakersfield) and on to Arizona.