The drive up the California coast is one of the most beautiful journeys in the world. My wife and I drove it a while back, and we still talk about it.
We planned to tour the wine country around Sonoma. I was pleased to discover a reasonably priced hotel located in the ‘gateway to wine country,’ San Raphael, CA.
Ah, San Raphael! It sounds like a sleepy little village, populated with charming neighbors and tasteful tapas bars. By day it is an attractive town. But don’t let the sun set on you in sleepy San Raphael.
More likely, those villagers lack sleep because of the revving of motorcycles in the wee hours of the night. Should I have been concerned that the motel’s website is spelled ‘villainn’?
San Raphael may be the gateway to wine country, but it is also the back door to San Quentin Federal Prison, ‘freeway close’ as they say.
San Raphael appears to be the ‘other city by the bay.’ This is where the prison guards and other service personnel live. It is also where friends and relatives of inmates await their release. And, I suspect it is the first ‘home away from home’ for many who do exit from San Q.
Incidentally, San Quentin is legendary as prisons go. Many of my favorite jazz musicians made their residence there. How bad could it be? Yet, as finishing schools go, I wouldn’t want my daughter to attend it, nor to date any of its residents.
The scenic neighboring town of Tiberon appears to have more lawyers per capita than any municipality outside of Washington DC.
That morning, I awoke with the distinct memory of the word ‘sloat’ appearing in my dream. This is not a word I commonly think of or dream about. However, as we drove up to our quaint motel in San Raphael, directly across the street was a gardening nursery bearing the name “Sloat”. How curious.
On check in, I inquired about the restaurant, across the parking lot, which advertised Basque style food. The restaurant was closed for business and only served our complimentary breakfast from 7-10am. But the proprietor assured me the bar, also on the property, was open and very popular. Oh, good.
My wife and I joked about the convenience of having a popular bar in walking (and hearing distance) from our room. It was kind of like whistling past the graveyard.
Our jocular tone soured a bit on entering the room itself. Where do I begin? Our first impression was that a contest had been held in there. The winner smoked fifty packs of Lucky Strikes in the previous 24 hours while the loser had smoked only forty-nine. That the housekeeper neglected to air the room was surely an oversight.
Our suspicions were confirmed by the copious cigarette burns on every piece of furniture in the room. I have never understood why people rest lit cigarettes on arms of upholstered chairs. Then it hit me. This being a ‘non-smoking room,’ there were no ash trays available.
At least the stale smoke discouraged any bedbugs from setting up camp.
It was too late to find another motel. I assured my wife that all her fears were unfounded and we went to dinner. We found a place downtown that was good but I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding about our stay. A bright moment in the evening was our discovery of a good book store, something that Los Angeles struggles to sustain.
We returned to the motel and joked about expecting motorcycle gangs to congregate in the parking lot. I pulled the blinds for privacy only to discover that the previous tenant’s chimpanzee had attempted to make a dress from the curtain. It would not shut. We could not see out but anyone could see in.
I solved that by deftly propping our luggage against the window, securing ourselves against prying eyes. Piece of cake.
My wife slept while I stood first watch. When the motorcycle revving started around 11pm, I looked to ensure my wife was still asleep. I hated to think she would win the bet. She didn’t stir.
But when our immediate neighbors started pelting our common wall with objects, punctuating the increasingly shrill argument, all bets were off. This marathon went on from midnight to about 3am.
Judging by her word count, the woman was winning. But we had to acknowledge he made some very impressive points with his rare interjections. With each well placed comment, the girlfriend would tally his score with another barrage of items thrown against the wall.
I would have liked to have been the proverbial fly on the wall but I know that flies like to get their sleep.
Eventually the motorcyclists revved off into the night. Our neighbors wearied of their dispute and slept like the just. And we, having nothing else with which to entertain ourselves, also found rest.
Our breakfast was ample and satisfying. We debated about who of our fellow diners occupied the room next to ours. No one seemed to fit our composite picture. Perhaps they were snuggling the day away.
We left on our tour of wine country determined to find other accommodations for that night. As we drove through Novato, my wife spied a Best Western near the freeway and made reservations by phone.
I have never had a better night’s sleep.