California Road Trip – “High Horses”

– Photos by Kaia Calhoun

Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “A life without adventure is likely to be unsatisfying, but a life in which adventure is allowed to take whatever form it will is sure to be short.”

A sucker for longevity, I have always taken his advice to heart. Of course, the problem with always playing it safe is that life can become a little predictable. On this vacation I vowed to step outside my comfort zone and make some extra-special memories.  So rather than doing a conventional Sonoma County wine tasting and bouncing from winery to winery tasting different vintages, Kaia and I experienced a vineyard in a very different way.  On horseback!

Day three of our California vacation started in Santa Rosa at the Bad Ass Coffee Company. I mean, really, how could we choose Starbucks over a place called Bad Ass? This Hawaiian franchise produces amazing coffee that is sold at sixty five retail stores. The atmosphere inside the store was totally chillin’, dude…I was like stoked to be there!

After some amazing pastries and espresso we were fueled up to get back into our rockin’ car and head to our next stop. Sterling Winery is perched 300 feet above the town of Calistoga. The winery offers stunning panoramic vistas of the Napa Valley and beautiful architecture that was modeled after that of the Greek island of Myklos. There are grapes as far as the eye can see.

The problem with this whole scenario is that visitors have to take an aerial tram (gondola) up the hill to take the tour and do the wine tasting – the whole point, after all, of going to a winery. I happen to be a little crippled when it comes to heights and I am even more averse to tight spaces. When the attendant helped me plop my fanny down on a seat inside the gondola and then shut the doors, there was a lurch and some serious squeaking and grinding. In my mind’s eye I pictured my beautiful daughter and myself plunging to our deaths before we even got to taste the wine. (That is not the way I want to check out, thank you very much. I was thinking more along the lines of falling asleep in my cozy bed and then stepping into eternity.)

Looking around at the scenery below us didn’t help my phobias, so I just examined my chipped toenail polish. I actually forgot we were on the wicked little tram until the bugger lurched again to let us out. I was pretty proud of myself….I wouldn’t have had the guts to do that five years ago.

We  proceeded from station to station to learn about the art of winemaking and sipping varietals along the way.  The most important thing I learned (besides that fact that I’m not as chicken as I thought I was) was that you don’t have to actually swallow the wine to participate in a wine tasting. You can just sip and swirl and spit! I had no idea!  For those of you who aren’t in the know, there are three stages of taste: the Attack phase, the Evolution phase and the Finish. I don’t know, it all seemed way too complex to me, but I do know that if I would have swallowed all that wine I wouldn’t have been able to clear the driveway. But the few sips I did take gave me a little extra confidence for our next pit stop.

Next on the agenda was the Triple Creek Horse Outfit at the Kunde Winery in Kenwood.  We were a very eclectic group; four riders hailed from New York – a young Asian couple and a sixty something year old man and a street-smart 16-year old kid who spent more time texting the holding reins. Then of course there were Kaia and me. Kaia has spent a fair amount of time in the saddle, but I’m like Billy Crystal in the movie City Slickers.

It was interesting to watch our guide place us on horses that matched our personalities, and even more interesting witnessing me get up on my horse, Newt. Being vertically challenged, getting my left foot into the stirrup was no walk in the park, let me tell you. Not only could I barely reach it, standing on my tippy toes, but then I had to swing my big fat leg over the horse. Not a graceful moment for a girl with a bad back. But I did it, grabbed the reins, and steeled myself for a fun ride.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of sitting atop a glorious creature walking amidst wooded glens, ponds, and rows of grapevines on a hot summer day. I was the teacher’s pet (or more likely the one he was the most worried about) so I was in the number 2 position. Other than the few times I had to remind my horse NOT to stick his nose up the back end of the horse in front of him, the rest of the time my guide and I talked about growing wine and the beautiful countryside. We even ventured into deeper topics like life and death and overcoming trials; not bad for a one-hour trail ride.

Getting off the horse was nearly as much fun as getting on it, but once my feet were on the ground I was stoked. I’d had two adventures in one day!  After one more quick wine tasting we were back on the road toward Orinda and the comfly bed in my niece’s guest room.

I’m going to walk funny tomorrow.

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