There will be no vacation for the Mills family this year.
Aside from the never-ending concern about costs: We can't find the time. For one thing, my daughter's month-long residential summer program at CalArts ends the Friday before school starts. And my husband is so crazy-busy at work, that when faced with an Independence Day holiday that landed on a Wednesday this year, he was hard-pressed to figure out how we could manage our usual celebration at my sister's place in Northern California - especially with a Friday morning meeting he HAD to attend.
So we did the trip in whirlwind fashion: He took just two days off. This means he worked Monday, we drove to Linda's on Tuesday, and Thursday was our drive back so he could be in the office today.
You can drive from the San Fernando Valley to Placer County in about 5 1/2 non-stop hours on Interstate 5 if there's no construction or holiday traffic and you're loosey-goosey with the speed limit. You may die of boredom before you reach your destination, but it can be done.
We usually take longer. For one thing, we are terrible at packing healthy lunches and snacks that can be consumed on the run. And I don't have the kind of bladder that can go that long without a stop or two.
(It doesn't help that the drive makes me sleepy, which means I crave coffees, which leads to a couple of additional stops at Starbucks -- which sets the vicious cycle in motion all over again.)
There is an alternate route through the middle of the state: Highway 99 was the main drag before the high-speed Interstate was built, and it meanders past Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto and a host of smaller San Joaquin Valley towns. There are more places to stop and more landmarks to see...
My husband had an answer for this: We drove home yesterday on Highway 101, which roughly traces the coastal route of the El Camino Real, connecting the missions established by Father Junipero Serra.
It takes a lot longer. For one thing, the road is longer -- plus, you've got to travel about 90 miles west just to pick it up. So if you decide to take 101 instead of Interstate 5, you have to just accept that you'll be on the road a long, long time.
(Google Maps estimates over 9 hours -- not including traffic, or stops along the way.)
But if you do so, you'll be rewarded with cooler temperatures and pretty scenery: beautiful, rolling hills dotted with California oaks... vineyards gleaming in the sun... charming little towns that have been lovingly restored... and stretches that hug the ocean.
There are also some unbelievably good places to eat in these picturesque coastal towns. In fact, a day of driving along the California coast allows us to cram in many of the experiences we look for in a vacation: Things to see, people to meet -- and delicious food. Just without the cost of staying in a hotel.
(To be continued)