California Cruising - Part 6
By Bill Moore
The title of one of my favorite John Denver songs is "Some Days are Diamonds, Some Days are Stone."
And by the last day of the California Coast 2002 Road Rally, most of the car makers who'd taken part in the drive down beautiful but challenging Highway One, clearly saw the last three days as "diamonds." They cars had performed almost flawlessly for the last two hundred or so miles. For one carmaker, however, the last day, would turn out to be a real "stone."
Readers of my previous accounts of the Rally and our test drive of the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid will recall that by luck, pluck and brazen stupidity, my wife and I found ourselves just behind the six fuel cell cars as they raced toward Hearst Castle and their next hydrogen refueling stop. It also would be a "refueling" stop for the rally participants as well with a picnic lunch in the park adjacent to San Simeon Pier.
Here we spent about an hour while the cars drove up to the entrance of Hearst Castle to refuel. Rather than wait for them, I decided that it was time to take my wife and Civic Hybrid for a side trip into the California wine country surrounding Paso Robles, just on the other side of the coastal mountain range to the East of us.
So, I pulled out the tour map of wineries in the area and headed south on Highway 1 towards Cambria. South of there, we'd turn left on Highway 46 and climb up over the Santa Lucia Mountains, giving the Civic its first real work-out up and over a mountain range, a task it met with aplomb.
California is one of those states it's hard not to fall in love with, and my wife and I were clearly taken by the central coast region with its inspiring ocean vistas, majestic mountains studded with clumps of oak, salt-spiced air and a certain magic in its light that has drawn artists for decades.
Our enchantment would only grow as we climbed steadily higher over the mountains. Behind us spread the incredible panorama of the vast Pacific coast. To the south we could see the rocky prominence that gave Moro Bay its name. We stopped near the top to take some pictures and savor the moment, then drove the Civic Hybrid over the pass and down the winding road that descended into wine country.
There are literally scores of vineyards and wineries in the Central Coast Appellation, some large but most small, family affairs. We stopped at the first such winery and asked if they gave tours. The haughty young woman behind the wine tasting bar curtly informed us they didn't, but that Eberle Winery about ten miles away did. We thanked her and drove off, disappointed by our first introduction California's much acclaimed wine country hospitality. I suspect this hadn't one of her "diamond" days. Fortunately, our experience at Eberle would more than make up for the brush-off we'd just experienced.
Admittedly this report isn't about wines or wine tasting. It's about the California fuel cell rally and our experiences with the new Civic Hybrid. But it's impossible to visit this part of the Golden State without stopping to appreciate one of its most important attractions, so we followed the young lady's directions and turned north on the 101 then east on highway 41.
It's pretty apparent you're in wine country as you drive east towards the Central Valley and Robbers Pass, for which Paso Robles is named. There are acres and acres of vineyards stretching almost as far as the eye can see. Our wine tourist map deftly guided us to Eberle on the north side of the highway. It apparently was an off-day for them, we were the only car in their parking lot.
I took some photos of the Civic, a couple with Eberle's rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Muscat Canelli in the background. We then spent a pleasant hour touring the winery and tasting samples, during which time we chatted briefly with Gary Eberle, the owner. He was getting ready to fly to the East Coast on a wine selling tour.
Out of courtesy, we bought a single bottle of Viognier, which we are saving for some special occasion. We would have bought more, but given increased airline security since September 11th, we were uncertain we could take more back with us on the plane. And Eberle didn't yet have a license to direct ship into Nebraska, which the state requires.
[United Airlines later informed us that each passenger is entitled to two bottles apiece as carry-on, but they must be wrapped so as to prevent spillage in the event a bottle breaks. Also a new federal regulation allows wineries to temporarily direct ship wine into an additional 12 states, bring the total to about 32. However, the customer must place the order at the winery.]
It was nearly 5 PM when we hit the road again, this time heading south on the 101 towards San Luis Obispo where the rally would stop overnight. Day Two would culminate in a wonderful dinner party hosted by The Green Car Group, which is headquartered in SLO, as it's known locally.
I can't write this narrative without taking the opportunity to thank The Green Car Group for not only hosting a wonderful party, but helping organize the rally, itself. They pulled out all the stops to help make this first-of-its-kind event the success it was.
It was on the drive down to the dinner party that evening I also noticed - surprisingly for the first time - how remarkably powerful the regenerative braking system was on the new Civic Hybrid. The regen on my Insight doesn't have half the vehicle slowing power as it does on the Civic. Let off the gas and the regen quite perceptibly begins to slow the car, much like it does in a full-battery electric vehicle. I suppose I hadn't noticed this until now because we were driving down a quiet, darkened residential street in SLO without the formidable distraction of ocean vistas and racing fuel cell cars.
As for the party itself, it was a wonderful outdoors affair co-sponsored by Ford Motor Company. We not only got to talk to a pair of college professors from Cal-Poly who read EV World, as well as two county board members, but also briefly with Ken Volk and his wife from Wild Horse Winery and Vineyards. Wild Horse supplied the wine for the evening. The fact that my wife and I had mistakenly parked the car on the wrong end of town and had to walk many blocks to reach the party was quickly forgotten. [City blocks in SLO are very, very long… trust me].
Besides, that night was Farmer's Market night in SLO and the main street was a carnival of people, merchants and musicians where no cars where allowed. We walked through the middle of it, our admiration for California's "good life" growing by the minute.
Gratefully, one of the Green Car Group's employees thoughtfully offered us a ride back to our car in a GEM, an offer we quickly accepted. We were in bed shortly after 11 PM [1pm our time] and awake again at 2 PM when some prankster set off the fire alarm at the Holiday Inn Express. We spent a half-hour outside waiting with all the other guests for the police, fire department and hotel management to sort it all out.
Next morning, as my wife slept in, I drove down to the city center for the rally send-off on its last day. The destination was Santa Barbara, about 100 miles to the south, with a city parade scheduled that morning in Santa Maria.
I found the cars gradually arriving from the refueling station as a crowd of support teams, media, guests and onlookers assembled for the start of the last leg. One car, however, wouldn't be making the run to Santa Barbara, at least not under its own power.
Sadly, DaimlerChrysler's NECAR 4 had developed an electrical problem that morning while refueling. Reluctantly, and probably somewhat embarrassingly, it would be trailed to the finish line. A DCX engineer shared his frustration with me after loading the car on the trailer, pointing out that the car had performed flawlessly the previous week in tests conducted in the scorching heat of the Mojave Desert.
With two motorcycle police escorts leading the way, the rally set off for Santa Maria and I drove back to the hotel to pick up my wife. We had decided to drive on down to Santa Barbara ahead of the rally so we could photograph it as it arrived in front of city hall. It was a good plan, but it didn't quite work out that way.
With our luggage loaded - the Civic's ample trunk easily handled all we had with us for the week -- and our hotel bill paid, we set off down 101, driving through Santa Maria on the lookout for the rally, which we didn't see. We continued south then east into the beautiful wine country of the Santa Ynez valley. The Civic Hybrid settled into its quiet, comfortable cruise controlled groove and we sat back and enjoyed the scenery of rolling hills covered in miles of vineyards. I amused myself by speculating where I'd build my dream house and plant my vineyards.
Having lived in the Los Angeles basin for a short period of time in the late 70s, I was pleased to discover the "other" California of sparsely settled rural lands that reminded me of parts of Virginia or Wyoming. Both my wife and I were thinking the same thought, How do we find a way to move here? We're still thinking.
As we drove though the narrow pass that links the Santa Ynez Valley with the coast, we suddenly found ourselves buffeted by strong winds that scour the coast just north of the Channel Islands. It was thrilling to see the Pacific again, but I also wondered, as I fought powerful crosswinds, why no one in California had thought to install wind turbines along this stretch of coastline. Providing the winds were predictable enough, it would be a perfect location for wind farms.
We pulled into sun-bathed Santa Barbara just before noon and our respects to its famous mission. Then we drove downtown to get set for the rally's arrival.
I figured we had about a hour to kill, so I called Bill Yerkes with whom we were scheduled to have dinner that night. Bill is the founder of Arco Solar, which was later sold to Siemens. He and his wife Sarah had moved down to Santa Barbara after living in Seattle for more than a decade and half. They had settled in Santa Barbara after promising not to stop driving south until they saw the sun again!
It turned out that Bill was with two SMUD executives and only a few blocks away. They had parked in the same parking garage as we had. Bill suggested we get together for lunch at an outdoor bistro just across the street from City Hall plaza. We agreed, it was a decision we would and yet wouldn't regret, because as it turned out, we had so much fun siting in the open courtyard eating marvelous food and drinking even better wine that we completely missed the finish of the rally.
So, if you wonder why we don't have any photographs of the five cars crossing the finish line, blame it on the enchanted spell we were under that glorious, final Friday afternoon.
We would eventually catch up with the cars and their teams at the Fess Parker hotel and convention center down by the beach, but the magic of the moment had passed.
We would spend a delightful evening with Bill and Sarah before driving down to Camarillo where we spent the night. All too soon the trip was over. We'd drive into Los Angeles the next morning and catch a plane back to Omaha, my computer stuffed with hundreds of digital photographs and my mind jammed with a million memories.
For my wife and I those five days in September are definitely "diamonds."
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