Spring Training: Travels to Sonoma & Santa Barbara
Every year I try to make a pilgrimage to the Sonoma Valley, an hour’s drive north of my Northern California hometown. Thirty years ago, when I moved to the Bay Area, I went to Sonoma solely for the wine, but through the years, I’ve discovered that the valley offers abundant other riches: soaring scenery, a sophisticated dining scene, exhilarating hiking and biking trails, sublime arts and crafts. So two months ago, when I awoke to a sun-splashed, blue-sky day and realized that I hadn’t been to Sonoma in more than a year, I spontaneously decided to make a visit.
The drive into the wine country was brilliant and buoying. The meadows were efflorescent with white- and pink-blossoming plum and cherry trees, and the winter-green hillsides and latticed vineyards were laced with golden mustard plants. Spring was springing everywhere.
As usual, I drove straight to the center of Sonoma town and parked on the town square. I love this plaza because it is so manifestly the town’s center: The Town Hall sits regally in the middle of the grand green space, surrounded by lush trees and gardens, paths, benches, and even swing sets. While the square was not as busy as it has been in the past, there were half a dozen groups picnicking on blankets on the grass, a dozen other people reading or chatting on the benches and admiring the pink and orange blooms, and a trio of mothers and kids swinging and squealing in delight on the swings.
The visitors bureau building is here too, and I usually start my visit by stopping there. Following pandemic guidelines, the center was closed to the public, but a table with brochures had been set up on the pathway outside. I asked the staffer sitting behind the table how the pandemic had affected travel to Sonoma, and she said that the impact had been formidable at the beginning, but that visitors were starting to trickle back now, and that the downtown was especially lively on weekends. Restaurants were starting to do a brisker business, she said, and shops were reporting more customers and were staying open longer hours. You could feel the recovery beginning.
I thanked her, said I very much hoped that trend would continue, and gratefully accepted the Sonoma Valley brochure and wine country map she offered. Then I set off to explore the shops that line the plaza, an enticing spectrum of cozy cafes, high-end restaurants, and stores selling books, jewelry, leather goods, olive oil, ice cream, photography, and much more. A few of these were closed, with hand-lettered signs posted in their windows saying they were open only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but most of the doors were open, and inside the shops, customers were browsing, chatting, and buying. Wherever I wandered, a sense of gratitude seemed to infuse the air, gratitude that we could share each other’s company, albeit in a masked and socially distanced way, and that this very sharing signified the glow of a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
From these shops I moved on to the historic barracks and mission that are across the street from the square. Consulting my brochure and the helpful plaques that have been placed around the area, I re-learned that the mission had been established in 1823 by a Spanish Franciscan priest as the northern endpoint of the Camino Real, the trail that connected 21 Spanish missions from San Diego to Sonoma, and that the wide-balconied, two-story adobe barracks opposite the mission had been built in the 1830s, when the area was still under Mexican control, to house Mexican soldiers.
Only the courtyard and gift shop at the barracks were open, but still, as I wandered the grounds, pausing to read the plaques and imagining the soldiers and priests who had walked in this very same space almost two centuries before, I began to feel that something was fundamentally different about this trip for me. After the advent of the pandemic last March, when I began traveling close to home, I had walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, then made pilgrimages to Stinson Beach, Point Reyes, and Muir Woods. As I reflected on these, I realized that they had been very personal journeys, quests to find meaning and healing, especially in nature’s wild embrace.
Standing in the courtyard of the Sonoma barracks, contemplating and conjuring its past, I realized that this was a travel experience of another kind: I had stopped at the visitor center, talked with the local tourism representative, and picked up brochures; I had perused the local shops; now I was researching the town’s history. I was traveling like a tourist!
I hadn’t been a tourist since October 2019, a full year and half ago, and it was a shock to realize that I was again doing these activities that, before the pandemic, I had done for decades. It was even more shocking to realize that these very things that I used to do professionally, instinctively, without even a second thought, were now all feeling a little unfamiliar. I’m going through the motions that I remember, I thought, but somehow, they don’t quite feel natural; I’ve forgotten how to do them smoothly.
And then it struck me: Spring training! Just as the major league baseball players were at that very moment in Arizona and Florida limbering up for the season, practicing pitching and batting and catching and running, so was I practicing researching, and shopping, and talking to locals, and bringing history back to life. This was my travel spring training!
That analogy resonated with me throughout the rest of the day. As noon approached, I went to one of my favorite restaurants on the square, The Girl & The Fig, to reserve a table. As I approached, I was surprised to find that all the sidewalk tables were already filled with patrons happily chatting and laughing, sipping and supping. Except for the multicolored masks that rested on diners’ chins and chests, it felt as if I’d walked into the Sonoma of two or three springs before. Right! I thought. I remember when doing this was utterly natural. So why do I feel hesitant, even a little intimidated, now? I quieted my misgivings and told the maître d’ that I’d like to reserve a table for lunch. I was amazed when she said they had one table left, and that was at 1:30. Eating here is what you do when you come to Sonoma, I thought, so I grabbed it.
I continued ambling around the square, but as the minutes passed and I pictured all those people together on the sidewalk, socially distanced but still in the same space, talking and laughing and eating, I realized that I wasn’t quite ready for that much close-quarter commingling with strangers yet.
I called the restaurant and cancelled the reservation, feeling a frisson of disappointment and relief, and after a little research, found that an esteemed local eatery, Delicious Dish, was preparing highly recommended take-out lunches. So I ordered a hot Dungeness crab melt, fried chicken salad, and coffee milkshake, picked these up from the friendly staff, and enjoyed a sun-dappled solo feast at a picnic table under pine-scented boughs in the Sonoma square. Spring training.
After that, I drove on to visit one of my favorite wineries in the area, the historic Buena Vista, which was founded in 1857. After parking in its lot, I walked along the entry path past huge shading trees, lush vegetation, and whimsical signs that relate the history of the winery. When I reached the entrance, I discovered that the winery was closed to visitors that day, but an employee I met at the gates kindly allowed me to walk through the grounds, past the sprawling stone buildings that elegantly evoke the atmosphere of old.
To be honest, I felt slightly lightened when I heard that the winery wasn’t open. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to stand in a tasting room with strangers, sipping and sighing and comparing tasting notes. As it was, I was blissfully happy to wander the grounds on my own, imagining the time when I would celebrate in the tasting room there. Spring training.
And just as in spring training, where the teams can decide to stop their exhibition games before the full nine innings are over if they feel they’ve had enough for the day, by mid-afternoon, as I walked back to my car, I thought, I’m done. This has been a good first outing: I’ve loosened up, played a few innings, practiced some of my old skills. Now it’s time to go home. There will be more practices to come.
My second spring training outing happened a month ago. On this occasion I went with my wife and son for a nine-day stay with my daughter and son-in-law in Santa Barbara, a five-hour drive south of Piedmont.
The reason for this trip was the most special reason imaginable: to meet and bond with our new, and first, grandchild!
So this was not a tourist trip like Sonoma, but it was my first stay-away-from-home trip since the fall of 2019. And as a result, I had to pack. Wait, I thought, packing!? What’s that?
I had to find my suitcase—where had I stored it all those misty months ago? Finally I found it, dusted it off, and opened it up on the bed—because I remembered doing this in the distant past. Then I thought: How do you do this again?
I went to my laptop and made a list of what I needed. Well, actually, I found an old packing list from a trip I had made to New York three springs ago and copied that—thank goodness I didn’t have to start from scratch!—and then modified it for April weather in Santa Barbara.
It was oddly familiar and yet unfamiliar to be doing this, and that feeling intensified when I began to round up my clothes and layer them into my suitcase. Shirts—check. Pants—check. Stuff the socks here. Stuff the handkerchiefs there. Put the sweaters on top to cushion everything. Wait, where did I put my toiletries kit? Oh, and don’t forget the hand sanitizer and the wipes and the extra face masks!
I packed my bag, and we piled into the car and drove to Santa Barbara. In Santa Barbara, life mostly revolved around the new little bundle of wonder that had entered our family, Mia Isabelle Davis. Holding her was like cradling a miracle in my arms. Welcome, marvelous Mia!!!
But one afternoon I was scheduled to be interviewed by the gracious Rick Steves about my new GeoEx ebook, Wanderlust in the Time of Coronavirus. This was for his radio show, and I thought it would be best not to have an operatic infant singing arias in the background, so I had contacted the expansive Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara to ask if they might allow me to use one of their guest rooms to tape the interview, and they had very generously agreed.
I drove to the imposing circular entrance at that stately resort, handed my keys to the valet, and stood in a socially distanced line to check in for my room. I’m chagrined to say that I felt nervous, as if I were re-entering an exclusive downtown club after a year in the outback. All the old rituals of checking into a hotel—bantering with the clerk at the front desk, handing over my credit card, taking my key, tipping the attendant who delivered my backpack and microphone to my room—seemed like rites from another life. How do you do this again? I kept thinking.
I suspect that many of us will be experiencing this same feeling as we recommence our travels, whether close to home or halfway around the globe, in the seasons to come. Whether it’s spring training, or summer training, or fall training, we’ll be going through the motions, making the packing list, opening and packing the suitcase, taking an Uber/Lyft/taxi to the airport, checking in for our flight, going through TSA, boarding a plane, going through Customs, getting to our hotel. All of these steps—once so intimately and effortlessly familiar—will feel a tiny bit foreign.
I believe that this feeling will fade quickly, and that after my second or third or fourth trip, all these rites will feel intimate and effortless again. But for now, I’m treasuring this sense of the unfamiliar, which makes me realize once again what a great privilege it is to be able to do what we do when we travel, to venture outside our everyday world and absorb the expanding riches that venturing bestows.
And so I heartily recommend that you make your own spring training trip to wherever your version of Sonoma and Santa Barbara may be. Make some time to limber up, stretch those muscles, take a few practice swings, field some grounders, run around the bases as if you’ve hit a homer or two.
Let’s all get ready for that magical moment when the umpires call “Play ball!” again. I can’t wait to see you on the field!
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
PS—And if by good fortune, there’s a little bundle of wonder waiting for you at the end of your journey, I know exactly where you’ll be: over the moon!
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Have you experienced your own version of travel spring training? If so, please share your story in the Comments section below. We’d love to hear how our fellow wanderlusters are re-entering the world of travel! Thank you!