Wednesday, March 30, 2011

California Central Coast - With Disaster!

Planning's really not my favorite activity but I can do it especially when it comes to travel. I'm not the type of person to just "wing it" so, unless someone else is planning the trip, I usually spend a good deal of time looking into places to stay, transportation, places to eat, and stuff to do. I'd like to think that it's not reducing the spontaneity of the experience but rather it keeps the "uh oh" moments to a minimum, which is good.

When I went back to California this past month I had planned a big trip around the state to see a whole bunch of stuff, some of which I had never seen or done. Start in San Diego, go up to Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, Monterrey, San Francisco, over to Yosemite, back down to Las Vegas, out to the Grand Canyon, and then back to San Diego. All the dates, routes, and places to stay were lined up. I also took the MINI out of storage and got it serviced/reviewed to make sure it was up to the trip. Everything was ready.

First stop, Santa Barbara. After leaving San Diego at around 630am on a Thursday, taking the freeway to L.A., and then driving up the coast highway from Santa Monica, I got into Santa Barbara around noon. Had lunch in a good Indian restaurant and bought a new shirt at a store on State Street (photo below) but I left my sunglasses in the store when I tried on the shirt and didn't notice until a few hours later. I called the shop but they hadn't seen them. Okay, not a huge bummer but still; I liked them and it wasn't a good way to start the trip.

From downtown Santa Barbara, it was up over the mountain to the Santa Barbara wine region. You might have seen the movie Sideways (in Spanish: Entre Copas), which probably did more than anything else before it to make the region famous. My favorite wines are Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara and I drink it like water as often as I can. My recommendation? Caretaker Pinot Noir from Trader Joe's for about $10. I think it's the best wine I've ever had more than once. Here's a photo taken from behind the Bridlewood winery in nearby Santa Ynez, which isn't a pinot winery but is still good:

Once again, so far so good. All the way up to Morro Bay to a motel that's just about half way between San Diego and San Francisco. In the morning, breakfast was at the restaurant in the photo below that overlooked the Morro Rock. It was cool to eat with the nice views and sounds of sea lions hanging out and boats going by.

The trip north from Morro Rock up to San Francisco is almost completely along the edge of the Pacific on the 101 highway. It's super scenic and extra fun in the MINI because of all the tight curves. On this day there was very light traffic so I didn't have to slow down too often for rental cars or RVs. About an hour or so south of Monterrey near Big Sur is the often-photographed Bixby Bridge. I think it's probably the most iconic thing on the entire drive up the coast, if not the entire coast of California (well, maybe the Golden Gate but still). I had never stopped to take a photo but this trip was all about making sure that I did things that I had never done before so here's the photo:

Everything was going great. The weather was good. Traffic was light. It was a very nice Friday. The next stop was in the town of Carmel, which is just before Monterrey and probably three hours south of San Francisco via the 101. The goal was to get to San Francisco that night after quick stops in both Carmel and Monterrey.

I stopped to get some photos in a beach park in downtown Carmel but when I got back in the car and tried to start it all the power cut out. The only items in the entire car that I could tell had power to them were the back hatch release and that annoying buzzer thingy that goes off when the key is in the ignition and the door is open. Great. I went through the mental checklist and tried everything I could think of. Nothing. Crap. What now?

I figured at that point that the battery had given up the ghost since the car had been in storage for a year. I called AAA and asked them to send out a battery service. Battery service is a guy with a truck full of car batteries that comes out to give you a jump start when your battery is dead. If they can't jump start it they'll sell you a battery and install it. The guy came out and tried to jump the car but it still wouldn't crank over. Actually, there was still nothing working in the car. He tested the battery and found that what was in the car was fine. Crap...again. I asked the battery guy to call to have a regular tow truck sent out. I'd need to get it to someone who could figure it out.

About 15 minutes later, a flatbed tow truck showed up and took the car to a shop that I had found over in Monterrey, which was only about 6 miles away. It was an independent shop that specialized in foreign cars but not specifically MINIs. Being that it was getting late on a Friday, there weren't too many options as I wanted to make sure that the shop would have hours on Saturday in case it wasn't a quick fix. The mechanic at the shop was nice and told me I'd have to leave it for the night and he'd get to it first thing in the morning.

There was a Travelodge around the corner that had space and was surprising cheap and nice. Dinner that night was at a mediocre Chinese place followed by a walk down to the Monterrey Wharf, which was, as always, a great place to visit. It was back to the shop on Saturday morning to see what was up. The mechanic eventually figured out that the problem was in the ignition system "somewhere" and replaced some fuses. His guess was that it was "the immobilizer" -- a security feature that I wasn't even sure was in the car. He told me that he did as much as he could but that he'd have to keep the car until Monday when he could spend even more time on it. Crap...again.

At this point, it was get-creative time. I happened to ask the tow guy the day before how much it'd cost to tow the car back to southern California and he told me $10 per mile! That would be like $4,000 or so, which, as you can guess, wouldn't work. I decided that I didn't want to risk having to be stuck in Monterrey for a week while a mechanic who didn't know MINIs worked to figure out what was wrong.

It would be U-Haul to the rescue. In case you don't know what U-Haul is, it's a company that rents trucks to people who want to move their belongings from their old house to their new house. When people move long distances they sometimes rent a car trailer along with the truck so that they can make a one-way trip with all their items and their car. So I went to a nearby U-Haul and rented the smallest truck and trailer I could get to tow the car back down to a mechanic closer to home. At least I'd be "home" and wouldn't be stuck somewhere for who-knows-how-many days waiting for the car to be done.

With the car on the trailer, I made the drive down to SoCal and dropped off the MINI at the shop on Saturday night. After a night of fitful sleep back at Dave's, I returned the truck to a local U-Haul shop. On the good side, it cost far less than I thought but on the bad side, my plans were now, officially, out the window. Oh well, I still had my health! :-)

The MINI ended up being in the shop for over a week, which was a bummer. It turns out that a new starter that I got installed for me prior to putting the car into storage was faulty and had shorted out the car's electrical system. It would have happened sooner if I had been driving it regularly as it was destined to die. The mechanic actually figured out the problem within the first day or so but only has one lift, which was occupied already with a major engine job. He replaced the starter and did a couple of other small adjustments to the car and I eventually got it back just like it was new.

As has been said before, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry... I enjoyed the trip up the coast to Monterrey but the trip back, not so much. The MINI is back in its warm home awaiting for my return one day to the Golden State.

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