Monday, 9 August 2010

Hoagies, Taxidermists and Tubing

There really cannot be anything more pleasant, than a day in the sunshine, wandering from vineyard to vineyard, quaffing wine and munching cheese.

We had arrived in the vineyard hot spot of Napa Valley, California, the night before, and, finding the campsite devoid of any staff, taken it upon ourselves to allocate our own camping spot. The next morning we were awoken to a very loud "Gee honey, come take a look at this here motor veheeecle. They've gone got themselves a tent right there on this here roof. Gosh darn it I sure do like Nascar" Or something to that effect. Our friendly camp attendant, who by the way was an unpaid volunteer who lived on the campsite and drove a golf buggy, informed us that we could stay but we would have to change spots. More importantly he also told us that we were in walking distance of 3 or 4 vineyards, some of which offered free wine tasting. Lovely. Before we could embark on our senseless boozeathon masquerading as a highbrow wine tasting exercise however, we needed to drive the nearby town to pick up our own body weight in cheese. Which, unfortunately, is evidently not the cheapest wine accompaniment on the menu and wine and cheese day was threatening to become ludicrously expensive. It was then that we noticed one of the other great American culinary delights, the hoagie. To quote Wikepedia... "A submarine sandwich, also known as a sub, grinder, hero, hoagie, Italian sandwich, po' boy, wedge, zep, torpedo, bocadillo or roll, is a sandwich that consists of an oblong roll, often of Italian, Spanish or French bread, split lengthwise either into two pieces or opened in a "V" on one side, and filled with various meats, cheeses, vegetables, seasonings, and sauces." We've all seen them on TV, and I'm pretty sure Homer Simpson's goal in life was to eat the world's largest one. The hoagie is, in essence, a very big sandwich. They were on offer for $5. We bought one, and it fed all 3 of us. If you've ever seen Tom and Phil eat, you'll understand how big it needed to be. Anyway both to save money and to americanise the event, Wine and Cheese day had become Wine and Hoagie day.

The wine part of the equation was also a little more expensive than we had hoped, by virtue of the fact that the wine tasting was not actually free. On the other hand it was really good, and also very interesting to have each bottle thoroughly explained to you, even if some of the language was a little flowery to say the least. The final vineyard we went to was the Castello de Amorosa (The castle of love) and it was pretty spectacular. The Italian owners had gone to great lengths to reconstruct it using traditional materials and building practices and it was, in every respect, a castle. Surrounded by a vineyard. Which is a welcome addition. Again our wine tasting wasn't free but the old Italian padrone serving us seemed happy to keep filling glasses, despite the fact that we had only paid to taste 5 different wines. And with cheeks already glowing from the previous samplings, we were happy to indulge his forgetfulness. Free wine is not to be sniffed at, even if we are clearly taking advantage of an old man's lack of faculties. The only problem was the old man was a little wilier than we had thought, and he was also on commission for every bottle he sold. $200 and 6 bottles later, we stumbled out of the castle with one collective thought. Well played sir.

We rose from our heavy slumber the next day and headed north to Oregon, the penultimate state before Canada. Since leaving Napa Valley and returning to the coast, the weather had turned decidedly misty. And it never looked back. The coastline became increasingly rocky and rugged, or Cornish according to Phil "Brody" Bazlinton, and we started to wonder whether England's reputation as a rainy island could possibly be justified by anyone living north of San Francisco.

The nights camping since Napa were curious to say the least. At one RV park we were greeted by Jimmy, aka James Randolph the III. The "What can I do you for" quickly followed by a suspicious "Hang on now, where are you guys from?" and then a resolute "Engerland, hell." followed by a slamming door. Tom and I looked at each other, is this lunatic coming back? Do we want him to? Do you think he has a gun? Yes, he did have a gun. Probably many guns. Luckily the door-slamming was just a bit of thigh-slappingly good humour, and he welcomed us in to his office which was little more than a quadrupeds graveyard. It was here that we learnt his full name, which was on the taxidermist certificate on the wall, displayed prominently between the heads of all the animals he had taxidermied, having previously shot them, with one of his many guns. "It's a shame you turned up when you did" he said, then turning to his wife / sister "we was just about to get nekkid". We laughed uncomfortably and eyed the wall for any sign of human remains. To be fair they were perfectly good hosts, and that neither of us ended up hanging from the office wall was definitely a bonus. The next morning Jimmy the III did notice Tom and I reading while we waited for Phil to return from the shower. "Well now look here, educated folk, reading and everything". I think there is a lesson here for every parent. If you don't give you're children books to read, they will go out and shoot things. And then stuff them.

After a second nights RV park camping on a plot of land that made the average inner city Londoner's backyard look like Wembley, we had an excellent stroke of luck on our third night since Napa. Tom had spied what he thought was a nice looking diner in the familiarly sounding Dundee and while investigating we met Wolfgang, who had been picking up the restaurant's food waste for his pigs. Wolfgang kindly offered to let us camp on his farm and also also informed us that the restaurant, Tina's, was locally owned and one of the best in Oregon. And we were not disappointed. Wild boar ribs all round coupled with Oregon's other speciality, micro-brewery beer.

Wolfgang and his American wife Susan had spent the last few years rebuilding and extending her parents former home, on a lovely plot of sloping land with a wonderful view of the valley below and adjacent vineyard. They shared the spot with a sheep, their chickens, several pigs, up to 3 cats, probably the most energetic dog in the canine kingdom, three young girls and a recently sheared llama, mostly hiding from embarrassed nakedness. Wolfgang offered us a choice between camping or utilising their spare guest house. Please press the red button on your remote to vote. {Short musical interlude while the votes are counted} Envelope torn open. And the winner is...... "The guest house please".

I'm going to have to retell one of Susan's stories about the girls because it really did make us laugh. We'd already been impressed about how the girls had reacted to their new rural way of life, accepting that the little piggies would grow up to be sausages and bacon and even collecting hen eggs and marketing and selling them to their neighbours (presumably while parents counted the profits and made retirements plans). However in addition to the many live farm animals, there was also a fairly gruesome, mummified cat, sitting to attention on a wall outside the house. Apparently it had been there before they moved in (although they claimed they had never heard of Jimmy the III). For the unsqueamish girls this was just another part of their new farm life but one of their more delicate female friends was terrified. Luckily Susan was able to coax the precious girl back to the house by showing her the cute little piggies in the backyard. The plan unfortunately backfired when the girl turned up one day to discover that all the piggies had been sent off to the big chopping house in the sky. When her mother finally arrived to whisk her away she burst into floods of tears and begged not to be returned to "the house of horrors". At which point the middle of the three sisters piped in, "Well if you don't like that you really wouldn't like what we have hanging in our basement" Mwah hah hah haah!

The major city in Oregon is Portland, the city of roses. We had a few fairly restful nights there and then headed up to Seattle in Washington state, where we deposited Tom for the weekend so he could catch up with a friend and yet another uncle. Phil and I headed east to the predictably named east Washington, which was a good kilometer higher than the coast and subsequently sunny again. And it was just in the nick of time really as ever since leaving Napa we had been threatened with an acute onset of hyperchondriacal hypothermia. The reason for our jaunt eastwards was to go "tubing", pronounced toobing, that an American friend of mine had kindly invited us to. Tubing is America's leisure time equivalent to the lunchtime hoagie, ie a frighteningly simple concept done spectacularly well. Take a large number of family and friends, a multitude of inflatable rafts, the "tubes", that range from single seater's to the 12 seater rings you see in public pools, strap them all together to form one giant flotilla, load up with beer, food, water pistols, wine, alcopops for the ladies and some more beer, add a generous helping of fast flowing river and away you go. It's sunbathing, rafting, session drinking, picnicking, pub crawling, friendly family fun. There are hundreds of people on the river, from students in inflated truck tire inner tubes to giant flotillas like ours. It's unashamedly awesome, and depending on where you pre-parked your cars at the other end, can last between 2 and eight hours. Phil and I had so much fun on the river that we decided to follow my friend back to his house on the lake near Olympia, a little south of Seattle, picking Tom up enroute, to continue our induction to American watersports. If you like river tubing, then lying flat on a single tube and being dragged round the lake by power boat will be as much fun as it sounds. My single biggest memory was the massive grins of Tom and Phil's (and I'm sure to them my) faces as we struggled not to be sent skipping across the warm lake water. Thanks again Andrew and Tiffany for your wonderful hospitality.

That then, was the final highlight of America before crossing into the last country on our list, although of course we are planning to cross back into America, then back into Canada, then America, then Canada, then America again. Maybe we should take another look at that map.

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