I wanted to see the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the "queen" of the California missions. It was built by the Spanish (or, perhaps more accurately, by the Chumash Indians they aimed to convert) between 1786 and 1820—old, old, old, by New World standards. In the gardens there, near a Morton Bay fig tree with roots like a nest of anacondas, we found a plaque commemorating Juana María, "the lone woman of San Nicolas Island," who is buried somewhere on the grounds and was the inspiration for one of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins.
What I liked best about Santa Barbara, though, were the parks. The city has devoted considerable creative energy to them, and several have playgrounds that offer whimsical riffs on the local environment. In the shipwreck playground at Chase Palm Park, just across from the beach, Ike and Lucy clambered over a cement whale and a giant shell partly submerged in the grass, and played hide-and-seek in a small-scale mission painted with bougainvillea vines. In the honey-drip light of a Santa Barbara late afternoon, we walked around Alameda Park, where a Mexican family was celebrating its daughter's quinceañera. The men played soccer, kids ambushed one another with water balloons from behind the fan palms, and a guy sold Mexican ices in flavors like guava and tamarind from a pushcart with a tinkly bell. Across the street, at the Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, we admired some of the unfamiliar botanical specimens: an Australian tea tree; geraniums that smell distinctly like chocolate mint. The Keck is a "sensory garden," designed to be especially appealing to visually impaired people, so the scents are delicious. But Lucy wanted to hang out at the pond, which was swarming with big, shiny koi, families of turtles, and peppermint-pink water lilies.
By this point, Art and I were eager to get back in the car—this was a road trip, after all, and in lovely, complacent Santa Barbara, we really hadn't glimpsed the wackier edges of California. On our way out of town, we couldn't resist taking a detour into the hills to have lunch at an old stagecoach stop we'd heard about. Cold Spring Tavern is half hidden in a grove of oak and sycamore trees. Inside it's a warren of rooms, with stone fireplaces, sloping wooden floors, and oil lamps on the tables. It is also, as it happens, a biker hangout—though fortunately, these particular bikers were a mellow subset dedicated to sobriety. Outside, the bikers and their ladies stood around eating tri-tip, a local specialty of barbecued beef served on a roll, and listening to a surprisingly tight little blues combo. I liked the whole scene, though the motorcycles roaring up every few minutes were a bit unnerving and the food was only so-so.
The advantage to a less than stellar meal was that none of us ate much, and we had room for the dense, vanilla-y butter cookies in Solvang, a Danish theme park of a town with half-timbered houses and a windmill, set down incongruously off Highway 101. (Fake as it looks, the town was actually founded by Danish immigrants—schoolteachers, we learned—in 1911.)
Welcome to the Kitsch Belt
The Central Coast
Just west of Solvang, heading toward the coast, we discovered Ostrich Land—a genuine roadside attraction, and, like the best of them, utterly random. Why ostriches?Why here?In any case, you can feed them and Lucy did, many, many times, though it didn't seem to cut much ice with them. Ike said the ostriches looked like feather dusters on legs; there was something of the jaded party guest about them too, peering just past you for someone more glamorous or with more food pellets. In a field right next to the ostrich pen you could pick strawberries that were juicy and intensely sweet.
By dusk we'd reached San Luis Obispo and were pulling up to the Madonna Inn, a 108-room hotel built in 1958 that is so pink and gold and exuberantly tacky, it achieves a kind of camp apotheosis. (The afternoon we were there, a couple of L.A. hipsters were getting married, the bride in a Chinese-style sheath.) A lot of people stop in just to see the bathrooms—the men's facility downstairs has a rocky waterfall for a urinal. We planned to do the same and skip an overnight in one of the aggressively unique rooms. But once Ike got a look at the place, he wanted to stay, and we relented. Unfortunately, Flintstonian follies like the Jungle Rock Room and the Caveman Room are booked months in advance. On such short notice, we ended up with the Country Gentleman Suite, which was meant to resemble an English manor but looks more like a Technicolor bachelor's lair from a Rock Hudson movie or a Cindy Sherman photograph. On our way out the next morning, we dipped into the gift shop, which sells postcards of every room in the place. The kids picked out a few rooms they hoped to stay in someday, and I bought one of Phyllis Madonna, the sultry, accordion-playing beauty who'd dreamed up the inn with her construction tycoon husband, Alex, and who sweetened its early years with her famous cheesecakes.