Dan and Hannah are Taking a Bite Out of Winter in California

Are you looking for the bathroom? the young flight attendant asks me.  It is just the kind of question that I could expect on any airline, but I quickly gather her subtext.

FD VA plane

Let me back up.  For a third January in a row, Hannah and I are taking to the airways for California to escape Maine’s single digit morning lows, the dark that comes with 415P sunsets, and the snow without end Amen.

Flying from Logan Airport in Boston, we have a six hour non-stop flight to LAX (Los Angeles) for our nearly two weeks in the Golden State.  Packed into a tight space on our Virgin America flight, we are in the air for about the time it will take to play today’s two NFL wild card games.

FD inflight bathroom

Before we take off, the head flight attendant informs us that the front bathroom is for first class (two rows with eight people total) and the two back bathrooms are for those in coach (eighteen rows x six across equaling 108 people).  A crimson velvet theater rope protects first class passengers from the unwashed behind them.

From seat 18C

From seat 18C

Some people wear compression stockings to improve their circulation when flying cross-country.  Others pay the $100 extra for seats with more leg room.  Hannah and I always get aisle seats across from each other so we can stretch out our legs.  Another cost saving, leg saving measure is that I walk the aisles of the plane each hour.  Hence it is during one such walk heading towards first class that the flight attendant discreetly and sweetly asks her question.

Oh no, I’m just walking the aisle, I say as a relieved expression comes to her face.  Whoa.  I just think how important it is to maintain the sanctity of first class on Richard Branson’s Virgin America Airlines. That said, they are paying $610 per flight more than we are!



When we fly cross country from East to West we like to leave early in the morning so we land before noon Pacific Time and have the afternoon in the Golden State’s sunshine.  That way, non-larcenously, we steal an afternoon of vacation on this travel day.  To do all this, we awoke at 230A for our 720A flight from Boston, a 62 mile drive to our south.  My friend Bill emails that that “sounds awful.”   Maybe so, but what sounds awful to us is driving 3000 miles in winter to get to California from the East Coast.

Hannah's loft sign in snow

On this still very dark Saturday, light snow falls as we head out Chases Pond Road.

Arriving at Park, Ride, and Fly in Revere, MA, three miles from the airport we park my Hyundai Elantra and wait, and then wait some more for their shuttle to the airport.  One couple grows restless as 5A turns into 525A and no shuttle appears for their 615A flight to the Caribbean.  Hannah and I still have two hours to our Virgin America flight but do wonder where the shuttle is.

FD park ride and fly

Among the ten of us waiting, a thirty-something professional woman says, I’m getting a Uber ride if anyone wants to join me.  I jump at the chance and think I’ve got to get with it and get my Uber on.  While we wait for her Uber the eleven person shuttle arrives with its driver, a wise-cracking combination Matt Damon/Ben Affleck (think Good Will Hunting) Southie driver.  He takes nothing personally about the delays, encourages us all, and good-naturedly jokes.  Though we had to wait, I tip him enthusiastically in my little effort to support the joyful among us.

FD D and H with DD

With two hours til flight time, Hannah and I celebrate in the predawn Terminal B thanks to Molly and Tip and our friend Mandy.  You see Molly and Tip bought us a $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card while Mandy dropped off morning glory muffins from Beach Pea in Kittery, Maine.  In the predawn dark we munch and sip regally.

FD VA tv

Once seated in row 18, I have a first world problem.  No ESPN on the seat back TV.  A true soldier of the sky, I somehow survive.  We love us our non-stop flights.   In the past, we have “saved” money flying flights with connections and ended up in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for hours!  Though drinks are all they offer for free, my orange juice goes well with my homemade peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwiches.

I settle into flipping between MSNBC, CNN, and TBS with Seinfeld reruns.  Two hours into our flight I check the video map of the flight.  We are flying at 450 mph over Michigan at 36,000’ at -78 degrees.  Thanks to the prevailing Westerlies, we will fly 582 mph when coming from West to East at the end of our trip.

Heading to southern California, we will have 50 more minutes of daylight than we do on a comparable winter day in Maine.

At the local Summerland, CA gas station

At the local Summerland, CA gas station

Our plan once we arrive at LAX near 11A PT is to get our Fox Rent-A-Car and drive 100 miles north on the coast on the 101 to our first night’s lodging at the Quality Inn in Santa Barbara.  Immediately we notice the difference in gas prices from the East Coast.  This morning in Maine gas cost $1.97/gallon.  With gas prices often a dollar more in California we learn that the refinery in California that produces the less polluting gas California requires is working at less than full capacity.  Hence the higher prices.  You go California!

Jasmine Cottage 200 yards above the Pacific Ocean

The VRBO Jasmine Cottage 200 yards above the Pacific Ocean in Summerland, CA

But there is more than bluff hiking and winter escaping on our minds.  We are looking to see if renting a house through VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) in nearby Summerland, CA (four miles south of Santa Barbara) for the month of February in 2017 is in the cards.  Our plan is to rent a home so family and friends can visit for a long weekend or a school vacation week.

After two previous January trips to California, we are hooked on its bluff trails, its mountains, and its sunshine as we start a fortnight of California Dreamin’.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Tunnel Trail above Santa Barbara, California

A Maine woman in Maine winter

A Maine woman in Maine winter

Maine!  I love you.  I really do.  On a regular basis I tell people we live in paradise.  And we do. But you are not perfect, damn good, but not perfect.  Let’s talk.

It has to do with your winter. Though Hannah and I have lived in New England for 33 years we have never warmed to your winter sports.  Sure we ran in your sub-zero temperatures and your snows for 20 some years, but we just never got into your skiing thing, be it cross country or downhill.  Skating? Please?  I can’t believe I am saying this, but maybe my future is as a snowbird.

8 month old Max and his big brother Owen

8 month old Max and his big brother Owen

So when the days are short and the dark rules New England, I want to take a big bite out of winter by traveling to where it’s warm. It used to be Florida. And Florida still is in our future as we plan to rent a VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) house in Englewood, FL next year so our kids and grandkids can visit.  But until then, we have found gold in the Golden State.

SB1 VA planeWaking early on a January day that will top out at 15F and then go down to -10F by the following morning, we drive in the predawn to Logan Airport to fly Virgin America for the first time.  Virgin America?  Is it a real airline or just puddle jumper?  We know of the celebrity of Richard Branson; the price is right and it’s a non-stop flight; so I am trusting the FAA on this one.  Settling in for six hours crossing the country, I have visual platinum in front of me – the mini-TV.  Arriving in LA by noon, we steal a day of vacation by flying east to west; this Tuesday is not just a travel but, but we have the entire afternoon and evening in California.

From the front seat of our rented Toyota Corolla as we approach the 101

The haze in the valley photographed from the front seat of our rented Toyota Corolla as we approach the 101

Before we flee Los Angeles for Santa Barbara 100 miles to the north, we rent a car from Fox. We like Fox Rent-a-Car; it’s inexpensive.  That said, the counter guy says “Do you want to have coverage for roadside assistance?” Really? Isn’t that part of the deal that when we pay you $468 for two weeks, you provide us with a car that works or you fix it?  It’s like the Post Office asking if you want to pay for coverage for lost or damaged parcels.   Isn’t that part of your job to make sure the package arrives safely?

SB2E parasailingCalifornia Dreaming!  An easy going life in tee shirts and shorts.  A place to be whomever you want, with as many tattoos and piercings as you want!  Horace Greeley’s  exhortation of “Go West young man, Go West” still applies to the tech savvy and the dreamers and Maine residents.  Why tomorrow we will see a young man para-sailing high above our heads at the mountain top.

Santa Barbara, our stopover for two days, is a community with lush, year round vegetation and Spanish architecture that has a Mediterranean vibe.  Palm and olive trees abound; athletic and tanned folks bike to work or just because they can.  And all of this is done in January!  In a heart beat I would move here as a snowbird (spending the winter in a warm climate) but for one rather significant reason: it’s just too far away.  With grandkids Owen and Max in the picture, no place can trump family in our lives.

SB 2AA H at Tunnel Trail signAwaking in the still dark of Wednesday after sleeping poorly having not yet acclimated to the three hour time difference from the East Coast, we breakfast at our Quality Inn and prepare for the the Tunnel Trail under blue skies with full 60F degree sun.

Taking Foothill Road to Mission Canyon Road, we veer left onto Tunnel Road.  Along the winding road near the trailhead we squeeze into a roadside parking spot in an exclusive, upscale residential neighborhood.  Soccer moms are running and soon students from University of California at Santa Barbara will be hiking in packs of fun.

On the shady north side of the mountain

On the shady north side of the mountain

Thought of as one of Santa Barbara’s most popular trails, the Tunnel Trail is a macho hike to be sure at 11 miles roundtrip with a gain in elevation of 3000 feet!  But it’s just what the doctor ordered on this first day of our hiking vacation.

As we climb steadily for a mile into the foothills, the trail begins on a cracked paved access road that the local power company uses . With very little shade, the trail speaks to sun lovers like Hannah or really anyone who is sentenced to winter in New England. The green landscape of grasses and bushes hide the fact that California remains in a serious drought. Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn that low flow toilets are everywhere and residents harvest rain water from roofs.

SB 2H very rocky trail

The rocky trail of dusty sandstone makes hiking boots a must. Though climbing on the cliff edge, we never feel in peril. Wearing three pairs of wool socks to buffer my feet from the rocky under footing, I wear my floppy hiker’s hat for protection from the sun.  In the past on this mountain we have shared the trail with mountain bikers, who, to a person, have been respectful of us hiking sort.

SB 2G  rocky trailSoon we ascend on eroded rocky sandstone trails into the mountains.  The desert landscape is no match for the heavy rains of last month having run rough shod on the switchbacks that take us up the steep mountainside.  Hiking in the foothills of the Inez Mountains at each turn we have views of the Channel Islands just off shore.  It’s mid-60s, feeling like 70s in the full sun, and a million miles from Maine in distance and disposition.

Within a mile of the summit

Within a mile of the summit

Four and a half miles into our climb, the trail becomes a paved road to the top that makes for an easy rhythm of walking and conversation.  The views of the Pacific Ocean above Santa Barbara are stunning.  Climbing relentlessly, we burst with pent up hiking energy and are on top of the world this first hiking day of our two weeks in California.

Lunch with the Pacific in the distance

Lunch with the Pacific in the distance

At the top we find a cell phone tower which allows me to Instagram pictures to family and friends.  After we deboot and desock with the Pacific Ocean in front of us, we feast on our homemade pb and j at a picnic table at the summit.

Atop La Cumbre Peak

Atop La Cumbre Peak

Hannah calls this a “good workout.” You know her standards are high when we hike two hours up over 3000 feet to La Cumbre Peak at 3995′. Great Day Hikes in Santa Barbara rates the Tunnel Trail as 4 of 5 for difficulty. It’s a workout but not a killer one or a hike that has you begging for mercy.  Over the next sweet two hours of downhill, we feel our knees creak, but that is small price to pay to hike in California in January.

At trail's end after four hours of glorious hiking above Santa Barbara

At trail’s end after four hours of glorious hiking above Santa Barbara

Twenty minutes by car back to our Quality Inn, we celebrate as Dan and Hannah are wont to do – poolside with Dos Equis on ice.  Let our California bite of  Maine winter begin.

Tunnel Trail rating: Four stars.  It’s for macho women and men.  That said, we did it and so can you if you think four hours under the sun in January is your idea of a good time.