Taking the Long Road Home: A Vaccine Journey and the Road to Dominion A day trip to Santa Maria: encounters with the good, the bad, the ugly, and more on re-entering the human race.
My “first outside adventure” in a year (a trip to L.A. to visit my hermetically sealed mom on display for her 90th birthday doesn’t count) was on February 20, 2021.
My fellow community activist, board member, and civically minded neighbor John Nicoli texted me a message:
“You still looking for a shot?” he wrote, “Available in Santa Maria.”
I replied in the affirmative, and he emailed me a link that read, signup
genius.com. I wondered if it was legit and signed up for my first appointment. It had felt like a cross between a drug deal and winning the lottery. (My second trip was a repast for Pfizer vaccination #2 on March 13, 2021.)
I guess you can call me an early adopter.
I woke up at a little before five in the morning, with anticipation of the day ahead. I turned on the TV for news, but landed on PBS travel host Rick Steves walking through markets in Alexandria, Egypt, and taking a felucca ride up the Nile.
“On the Nile,” he said in his annoyingly nasal, yet informative voice, “tourists leave their cares behind.”
I dreamed of following suit.
While the Pharaohs had been prepared for eternity, buried with their valuables for the afterlife, I’d been waiting an eternity to get out of my hovel.
A Dolly Parton public service announcement appeared, and the country star crooned her reimagined “Jolene” vaccine song, wearing an outfit with cut out sleeves for easy shot access. I wondered if I should cut holes in one of my T-shirts.
“Don’t be such a chicken squat,” Dolly chided, in response to vaccine deniers and slaggers, as she crooned me into the mood while I dressed for my big day out.
I hadn’t driven up and over the bucolic San Marcos Pass Road (Highway 154) in more than a year.
My first stop was Bob’s Well Bread Bakery in Los Alamos — a 40-minute wait in line. Luckily, I’d gauged enough time before my appointment, and spent the waiting period chatting up two fellows in line ahead of me: a Los Angeles-based architect with a home in Los Alamos, and a very young federal judge from Atlanta, who was loading up on Bob’s great bakery items to bring on his flight home after visiting his ailing father in SLO.
I bought bread for myself, recommended to me by a Santa Barbara friend who had spent the past year bringing me Trader Joe’s groceries during my pandemic paranoia (he did an almost perfect job).
A bag filled with two of Bob’s fantastic baguettes, a couple of bagels, a lovely croissant with cheese and tomato that I eventually devoured on the drive up to Santa Maria, a sourdough loaf to freeze, and I was loaded for bear!
The vaccination center at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria resembled a country fair attended by old people (65+). The air was filled with excitement and positivity. Attractive young people manned the booths, and bright white tents adorned with colorful balloons closely resembled a 1950s themed rock ‘n’ roll party. A staff member with pom poms cheered everyone on.
Who would have imagined that senior citizens, heck, folks of any age, would be this happy about getting a shot in the arm?
As everyone agrees, it’s not easy recognizing old friends and neighbors when wearing masks and sunglasses, but I thought I spotted Summerland artist Richard Aber.
“Is that you, Richard?” I asked.
“Nope,” was the reply.
“Oh, sorry! I thought you were my old Summerland neighbor that I profiled in the Montecito Journal,” I replied.
“My wife and I just moved from Summerland, but we lived there a long time, up on Whitney,” said the man who introduced himself as Peter Treadwell.
Turns out that Peter is the brother-in-law of my old pal Steven Gilbar, who lives in Montecito and just released his new book, Published & Perished.
“So how are you feeling about the vaccine?” I asked, as we waited out our 15-minute “safety time,” under a tent stocked with water, coffee, goldfish snacks, and a very nice, young volunteer fireman checking in on everyone.
“It was nice to be shot,” the retired builder and photographer said. “It was very easy and very rewarding.”
Safe to go, we bid adieu and I said, “See you in three weeks, same time next month!”
I got in my car and began my return journey, anticipating a stop to pick up to-go lunch at Industrial Eats in Buellton.
Sometimes Siri steers you wrong on your phone; sometimes she does you right. Because I had my settings on “avoid highways,” I didn’t notice that “it” (an Australian male voice directing me) was navigating me through an unknown road which turned out to be absolutely beautiful. It was the most happy and divine accident I’d had all year: a drive through my California, the California of yesteryear.
I drove out of town towards the east, passing fields of wild yellow mustard and the east-west traversing Santa Ynez mountain range. The road out of town hooked up briefly with Foxen Canyon Road (I hadn’t realized it went that far north) and then Sir Siri told me to take a right turn onto Dominion Road.
It’s not easy taking notes while driving, so I tried to the best of my ability to remember what called to me so strongly. I went on and on about this newly discovered side route to my friends, who may have thought I was nuts, but they probably think that anyhow. Was it because I hadn’t been out of my cage for a year? Were the blues bluer? Or is the landscape more picturesque than I remembered? Were the huge, ancient palm trees that I met and called my new friends, more awesome?
After staring at four white walls for most of the year, I savored the green landscape, grazing horses, tractors in the fields, and red-tail hawks floating effortlessly overhead. I passed a recreational open space called Los Flores Ranch, which I decided I would visit on my return for a second vaccination. I stopped to photograph a few majestic palm trees that I dubbed my “new, old friends,” and listened to the wind as it whipped and rustled through the serrated leaves. I vowed to return to this undiscovered road that felt like a long-lost friend. After a few miles, the road eventually circled back to the 101, where I made a left and headed south to Buellton.
Sadly, my revelry was ruined by an unfortunate happenstance. Not all travel, including day trips, goes smoothly. Perhaps I had tried to re-enter “society” too quickly.
Perhaps the name of the road that I discovered accidentally, Dominion, which circles from Santa Maria back to the 101 South, just north of Los Alamos, had something to do with it.
It felt like the pandemic was non-existent. The restaurant, which had long been my favorite in the Valley, was bustling with people waiting both inside and out for their orders, along with a few sitting at a handful of outdoor tables set up in the parking lot.
A darling Latino man took my order at the inside counter. After I paid, he said it would be about 25 minutes — which was neither music to my ears nor my empty stomach. I wandered back to my car to wait and a 92-year-old friend (who is hard of hearing) called. I told him I was wearing my mask and to hold until I could get to my car, which had been blocked by a group of people, one of them without a mask.
Suddenly, the family surrounding my car verbally pounced.
“We’re not blocking your car! We’re wearing masks!” The one next to my door was not.
I really hadn’t been speaking to them but was talking loudly to my friend so he could hear me through my muffled mask.
“Are you from L.A.?” I asked, as I knew people in the Valley didn’t act like this. We’re mellow in Santa Barbara County, right?
Dead silence. (No offense intended, dear Angeleno readers, as I grew up in Santa Monica, which means I know how people from a city of almost 10 million can behave.)
By now, my joyous mood had soured, so I went in to find out what was happening with my order. Another unhappy encounter (I’ll spare you the details), and I told the rude gal, whose name I won’t mention in print, to please donate my order to a homeless person.
Despite not assuaging my hunger pangs, the drive back through the Gaviota tunnel and coast was bucolic. I’d lost my appetite by now and decided to just focus on Dominion Road.
Back in the Saddle at Last
My return trip three weeks later was a much happier affair. This time, I drove up with my best friend as I wanted to show her Dominion Road. We ran into Peter Treadwell again, along with his family members, and had a lovely celebratory chat. We were all excited about getting our second shots.
I guided my friend along the back route, and she was equally impressed. We stopped for a short stroll at the lovely Los Flores Ranch, which included a brief chat with the swell fella manning the kiosk.
I had made lunch reservations at Pico back in Los Alamos, where we ran into Indy columnist Starshine Roshell and her husband, John. It was so nice to see an old colleague after the year of lockdown.
Our lunch, while mostly enjoyable and a great treat, seemed a bit pricey at $130 considering what we had. But I would have been happy to pay twice as much just for the excitement of dining out again (yes, we cheated a bit, but we did wear our masks, and only removed them while eating and sipping).
The chef came out to check on everyone and kindly made a small fix on one of our dishes: the undercooked local black cod ($33). Truffle fries were swimming in oil, but I did enjoy my Baja roast quail ($27). We both liked the red blend wine so much ($15/glass) — Cavo Real, from the great wine growing state of Guanajuato — that we each bought a bottle ($20) to take home.
A smooth drive home, a very long four-hour nap the following day, and a slightly sore arm was the only hangover from my vaccination day journey.
Synonyms for the word dominion, a word famously used in the Bible for having power over animals, include authority, command, control, jurisdiction, power, and sway. While all these words mean “the right to govern or rule or determine,” dominion stresses sovereign power or supreme authority.
This road did all of this and more. It took command of my senses, control of my feelings, and swayed me to love my birth state even more.
Just as Queen Elizabeth II has dominion over her kingdom, for one short afternoon, I gratefully felt like I was beginning to have dominion over my life again.
All hail to California, rumored to have been named for a black moor queen in a fictional novel (more on this debate at a later date).
Whether that’s fact or fiction, for one short afternoon, I felt like Queen Califia, the fictional queen of the island of California, in our very own backyard.