23 September 2007

Autumn equinox

It's the autumnal equinox, one of my favorite days each year. Day and night hours equal each other. And why does this thrill me? Because it means now the days get shorter and shorter, moving toward the dark of winter. I love the quiet drama of it. And I love autumn more than any other season.

Normally, I'm at work on this day, far too busy to pay attention to the world outside my office. But this year, I'm not working. I have plenty of time on my hands. So for the first time ever, I spent the fall equinox day by enjoying what I usually only wish I had time for.

For northern California, this one is an auspicious equinox. The day started with rain, a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence in September. Normally it's around 94 degrees, humidity is about 10 percent, the sky is like featureless, boiled milk and your Wren is desperately looking for signs of fall because oh my god, it's the end of September and it just can't still be this totally outrageously hot, can it? Can it?

It can. But this year, I woke up at 6 a.m. to rain. Cool, refreshing rain.

I had planned to go for a walk this morning, which requires a 15-minute drive down mountain to Placerville, where the El Dorado Trailhead at Mosquito Road begins. I walk two to four miles each day along the trail. But this morning it was raining.

Any of you who've been reading this blog very long know that Wren loves rain. Wren loves cool weather. Wren lives for glowing, snapping fires in the woodstove and the smell of rain, or even snow, streaming in through cracked windows.

Wren also especially loves listening to the rain patter on the paths and leaves around the house, and loves to hear it drum low on the roof while sitting inside in a warm robe and slippers, her hands wrapped around a nice, hot cup of coffee. I always feel like I'm getting away with something, and perhaps right now, I am. With no job, I'm not rushing around trying to get ready for work, too busy to pay attention to such things as the sound of rain on the sour gum leaves, which are just starting to turn scarlet 'round the edges.

No, my mornings are no longer stressful. There I was at 6:10, breathing in the scent of fresh-brewed coffee while the cat lapped his morning faucet water in the bathroom, the dog gobbled down his bowl of chow and all around, the rain fell, the sun rose and the mists floated low along the earth.

This morning I got away with living slowly.

By mid-morning the rain had stopped, though the sky remained gray and the air cool. By early afternoon, I was ready to get out and take the walk I'd missed in the early morning. So I pulled on Mr. Wren's rain-jacket (I don't have one of my own—I'll have to get one), slung the camera around my neck, grabbed $5 in quarters from the Egg Money jar so I could treat myself to a coffee in town on my way back, and like Bilbo Baggins, trotted off in search of Adventure.

What I've discovered, at least on the trail, is that if I walk at a decent pace for a half an hour, I cover about a mile and a half. I know, I'm still pretty slow. But I'm not trying to break records – only to just be out there, breathing the fresh air, moving my body, using my muscles, feeling good. I was delighted to discover just the other night that beneath the soft flabbiness that comes from years of sitting behind a desk exercising only my brain, there are now actually hard muscles in my thighs! Wow!

So I thought OK, I'll walk for a half hour or so, take some pictures of My Little Town, and then turn around and walk home, where more coffee waited for my return.

Camino, California is a village of about 3,000 souls. It nestles into the Sierras right at the snowline, just about 3,100 feet above sea level. If you keep heading east from here, you start doing some serious climbing, reaching Echo Summit on Highway 50 at about 7,400 feet. Then you head back down a thousand feet or so into the Tahoe basin.

Local fruit growers gave the whole area around Camino the marketing name "Apple Hill" back in the early 1960s, when they were trying desperately to recover from pear blight that had decimated the local pear orchards. They replaced them with apples, peaches and cherries, talked the womenfolk into baking apple pies for visitors and started what would become a fall tradition of visiting here for thousands of people all over California.

The draw? Fall color (give us another month), locally grown apples, picturesque old barns and old-fashioned crates full of fruit, homemade apple pies, strudels, and ciders, chilled noses and a truly beautiful, old-time American countryside. People drive hundreds of miles just to wander the back roads here, visiting the farms, fruit stands, crafters and bakeries, and later in the season, the Christmas tree farms.

In the last decade or so, this area has also become popular or vineyards and wineries, too. It's like the Napa Valley used to be before it turned into big business and a huge, bustling tourist trap.

Camino has some old neighborhoods clustered on either side of the main road. I live in one of them. A walk of barely a quarter mile puts me right downtown. There's not much there – just the Camino Food Center, a realty, the post office, a rather nice restaurant called The Forester that serves fresh game along with the usual steaks and pasta, the Camino Coffee House, the Camino Veterinary Clinic and the Pine Cone CafĂ©. Blink and you'll miss it.

I walked through town and kept going, turning right at the coffee house, which was once where the cable trolley reversed direction on a manual turntable. The trolley transported logs from the mountains down into town, where the lumber mill waited to turn them into boards and sawdust.

Camino grew up around the Blue Diamond Lumber Mill here, now Sierra Pacific. The mill still runs day and night, and it's common to see semi-trucks loaded down with freshly cut trees headed for the mill, then leaving it later loaded with pallets of shrinkwrapped two-by-fours. A lot of the houses in the older parts of town were originally built as housing for mill workers – they're barely more than cottages.

The cable trolley turntable is gone now – you'd never know it was there.

The walk felt fine. I was enjoying the day. It hadn't started raining again, and it was quiet. While there was a little traffic on road, it wasn't too bad. It's early in the Apple Hill season, yet. In a few weeks, traffic will be bumper-to-bumper everywhere in this little valley.

The main problem with walking or riding a bike around here is that there are no shoulders to the roads, which are very narrow two-laners, and twisty to boot. That's why I drive five miles down mountain to Placerville each morning to walk – there isn't enough space on the Camino roads for me and the logging trucks, and they're a lot bigger than I am.

Anyway, I walked as far as Rainbow Orchards, stopped in to smell the fruit and the scent of baking pies in the old barn, and mingle a little with the small crowd of tourists, all of them in line for that pie. The line was too long to wait through for a cup of coffee, so I started back. I'd covered my mile and a half.

After nearly getting creamed by a couple of SUVs, I climbed up off the road and walked along a graveled path bordering a new vineyard, which climbed steeply up a hillside. It's just early enough in the autumn that the new grapevines haven't figured out yet that they're supposed to turn color and drop their leaves, but they will soon.

A little further along I came to Primus Vineyards, which I'd passed on the way out. This time I decided to stop, needing the loo and, since their tasting room was open, figuring I'd take a little liquid rejuvenation. Primus's vines are more mature and, as I discovered as I got closer, I could see they were heavy with clusters of dark, purple wine grapes. The vineyard owners tend and harvest the fruit by hand, producing a small, exclusive variety of high quality wines.

While sweating lightly under Mr. Wren's rain-jacket and glad for an excuse to stop walking for a while, I tasted this season's offering at Primus: a nice blended red called "Duo I"; the '05 Zinfandel, which was delicious and fruity; the '06 Zin right from the barrel, which was much lighter tasting, almost buttery. Then there were two Syrahs, an '04 and an '05. I liked the '04 better myself, but then I love the peppery, spicy flavor of the local syrahs and, while I don't have a truly educated palate, the '04 was just ... nicer. Then came a lovely dry merlot, and finally, a sweet, fruity port that tasted just like autumn.

By the time I finished tasting all those delicious wines, I was yucking it up with Primus's sales manager and events coordinator Theresa, who was pouring them for me. We couldn't have been more different – there she was, looking elegant and put together in black with a lovely scarf to accent; and there was me, in jeans, a rain-jacket several sizes too large and an all-weather fedora, red-faced from walking. She didn't miss a beat, and now I know what I want Mr. Wren to get me for my birthday.

If you're interested in learning more about Camino's Primus Vineyards, go visit www.PrimusVineyards.com and tell them Camino blogger Blue Wren sent you.

The rest of the walk went rather easily, as I was grinning like a fool and quite well fortified. So I wouldn't have to risk my life walking along the narrow road anymore, which was getting busier as the afternoon wore on, I took a shortcut through the old neighborhoods toward the middle of town. I love the old houses. Almost all of them are small, cottagey and unpretentious, leftovers from another era. Some are kept up nicely, some aren't, but they all have their appeal.

I came around a corner, meandering now as I was looking for a way to get a photo of the valley below the houses without having to trespass in someone's back yard, when a young man said, "Can I help you, ma'am?" I turned, and there was an El Dorado County Sheriff's deputy, dressed all in swat team black.

I must have looked a little surprised, because a moment later two more deputies joined him, also dressed like ninjas.

"Do you live here?" he asked, indicating a house a few doors up from the one I'd been wandering past.

"No," I said. "I live here in town, but I'm just out walking and taking photos. Um..." the journalist in me took over. I couldn't help it. "What's up, guys?"

"Oh, nothing to worry about," he smiled. He's dressed like a commando but there's nothing to worry about. Riiiight. "We were answering a 911 call that came from this address, but there's no one here."

Dang. All dressed up and nowhere to go. I know just how they felt.

"It's been quite a while since the call," another deputy said. They started walking along with me, back toward their cars.

"Did you take a picture of us?" the first guy asked.

"Nope," I grinned. "You want me to?"

"Uh, not really," he laughed. I left them climbing into their cars and walked the rest the of the way home.

And now, according to my handy-dandy pedometer: I took 9,208 steps, walked 3.92 miles, and burned 509.6 calories. I figure I drank the calories back while I was tasting the wine, but that's OK. I made a little more room for dinner, my muscles got a nice workout, and I almost got to be in the middle of manly swat team action with a camera. Not bad for an afternoon's wander, eh?


Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Sounds like a nice afternoon, all around. Fall is by far my favorite season, too. I love putting on a big sweat shirt when it's mid-50s out or so, and starting a fire in the back yard.

BTW, I'm also interested in winemaking. I have a 6-gallon jug of wine in my basement. It's about 2 years old now, and was my first ever attempt at my own vintage. I have a feeling it's going to suck royally, but we'll see. Maybe I'll blog about it at some point.

Dragon Laugh said...

I miss Camino in the fall. Placerville has it's highlights, but overall it isn't nearly as pretty. I'm very much enjoying the coller, wetter weather. And coffee. And tea. Now I just need to find a cat to warm my lap as I read a goood book. Maybe I'll sneak over to your place and curl up in a corner with coffee, a book and Pib. Now that Ican, almost. This week brings the end of this term and I have a week off to be blissfully caref-free, and you better believe I'm gonna do just that. Laziness beckons, and I shall answer.