A dog and a man walk into a bar. Bartender says, “You can’t bring animals in here.” The man says, “But he’s no ordinary dog. He talks.” The man turns to his dog and says, “What’s on top of a house?” The dog says, “Roof!” The man says, “What’s on the outside of a tree?” The dog says, “Bark!” The man says, “Who’s the greatest baseball player of all time?” “Ruth!” The bartender throws them out. As soon as they’re on the street, the dog says, “Do you think I should have said DiMaggio?”
People have been telling “A dog walks into a bar” stories since the dawn of time. Historical records from the University of Oxford include this 5000-year-old Sumerian joke: “A dog walked into a tavern and said, “I can’t see a thing. I’ll open this one.” Apparently that was a real thigh-slapper back in BC, but modern scholars continue to scratch their heads, and social media is full of half-baked explanations like, “It’s obvious the dog had his eyes closed,” or “There’s a pun in there somewhere, if only we spoke ancient Sumerian,” or “Must be a bawdy joke because they were wearing togas.” Huh?
My point is: dogs have been hanging out in bars with humans ever since alcohol was invented 9000 years ago. Twentieth century laws banned Bowser from the boozer on the basis of health and safety, but experts now say that's unnecessary. Healthy, vaccinated, well-behaved dogs, says veterinarian Eva Evens, “pose an extremely low risk to human health.” Today, thanks to California’s 2014 “canine dining law,” dogs are allowed in outdoor eating areas and some indoor settings, depending on the proprietor’s preferences and your pet’s ability to stay out of trouble. This is great news, because painting the town red can be a lot more fun when you bring along your best friend.
And that goes double when you’re headed to a roadhouse. On Sunday, as part of my selfless research on behalf of my readers, I went to 7 Mile House, an 1858 roadhouse that has won the Best Dog-Friendly Restaurant award for the past five years in a row. There Rich and I met up with — oh wait, let me set this up properly. My brother, his wife, and their dog walk into a bar … and we all had lunch on the terrace, surrounded by other dogs and their human companions.
I was having so much fun meeting dogs that it was hard to settle down and concentrate on the food. When I did, it was clear why this place was famous for such Filipino specialties as adobo (marinated pork) and lumpia (crisp-fried spring roll). My brother Mike briefly considered the Cow Palace burger, an entire pound of Angus beef plus bacon and a staggering list of other trimmings, but he was put off by the menu’s warning, “Dare to eat this only if you’re so hungry you could eat a cow!” He wisely opted for the half-pounder instead.
No one was surprised that Deb and Mike’s French poodle, Django, barely nibbled at the beef patty from the dog menu; advanced years and missing teeth make him a notoriously delicate eater. So you can imagine our amazement when Django sniffed the doggie lumpia then leapt on it like a wolf, gobbling three rolls and making sure his humans took the rest home for later.
The conversation turned to what makes a proper roadhouse. We agreed these roadside eateries are distinguished by stellar food — far better than you’d find at a typical diner or bar — and a dog-friendly attitude. I would also add a hint of danger from a slightly disreputable past (or present).
The 7 Mile House began innocently enough as a toll house where drivers paid a toll and watered the horses. With the addition of a barroom and bedrooms, word went around it had become a brothel. An illegal poolroom in the 1890s launched its career as a gambling den, and I think we can all guess what kind of hijinks went on during Prohibition. In the 1970s the owner was arrested by the FBI for being the top bagman under Ron “The Cigar” Sacco, the most successful bookmaker in history. It goes on and on. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
The 7 Mile House was a biker gang hangout when Vanessa Garcia took over in 2004, and with the help of her family she’s now made the place downright upright. But in the early days the cops were called out to restore order so often that she got to know them well. How well? She's marrying one of them later this year.
Not all taverns can boast that much colorful history, but Pengrove’s Twin Oaks Roadhouse scores points for longevity (it's nearing the century mark) and maintaining the Western rancher atmosphere. When I walk in, I’m always vaguely surprised not to find saloon doors swinging at the entry and a juke box playing the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Here the standing joke is: A three-legged dog walks into a saloon. He says to the bartender, “I’m lookin’ fer the man who shot my paw.”
Twin Oaks is a great place for lunch; the food is excellent, the service cheerful, and the atmosphere so sleepy it’s practically a siesta. Happy Hour starts at 2 pm (!), so about the time I'm heading out the serious barflies are trickling in. I’ve heard the place can get rowdy at night; last summer there was a fracas in the parking lot ending in a broken nose and lots of conflicting testimony. But so far I’ve missed all the action.
Rich and I visited another fabulous roadside eatery this week but regretfully decided Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café is not technically a roadhouse. Good food? Check. Dog-friendly? Check. Seedy barroom atmosphere? Decidedly lacking. Still, this quirky, engaging spot is well worth a visit.
These days lots of taverns and roadhouses feature Yappy Hour with "puptails" such as Barkaritas, CharDOGnay, and Bow Wow Bubbly. Some provide off-leash runs overseen by a “wooferee.” Temptations include desserts like the Poochini, a peanut butter sundae with dog biscuits. Yes, it’s all silly indulgence, but why not, once in a while? Dogs never turn down a chance to party. Their joy is contagious and if we’re lucky we’ll catch it again and again.
Animal behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell says, “That is what dogs and their emotions give us — a connection. A connection to life on earth, to all that binds and cradles us, lest we begin to feel too alone. Dogs are our bridge — our connection to who we really are, and most tellingly, who we want to be.” She adds, “I invite all of you to show our own species the same patience and compassion that we show dogs. After all, dogs seem to like us a lot, and I have the utmost respect for their opinion.”
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Just when I though travel couldn’t get any weirder, I learned the Japanese built a train platform in the middle of nowhere with no entrance or exit, no amenities, and no grand vistas. Obviously, you’ll be asking “Why?” And, “No really, why?” And finally, “Is this a joke or some kind of esoteric performance art?”
Burrowing into the online research like a badger, I unearthed clues suggesting you’re supposed to get off the train and simply stand on the bare platform for an hour or so until the next train comes along. (Obviously you want to be very, very sure of the schedule so you don't miss the last run of the day.) Apparently people are traveling hundreds of miles just to experience this unique way of creating a little pause in the headlong rush of their lives.
I must say I prefer a few more creature comforts in the way stations on the journey through life. Give me shelter, food, a glass of cheer, good music, and congenial company. Not to mention a bathroom. Unique as it is, Japan’s Seiryu Miharashi train station is not making my short list of potential travel destinations — or my long list, for that matter. My tastes run more to hospitable old roadhouses that have been comforting weary travelers for generations. I visited one such establishment last Friday: Giaco’s Valley Roadhouse in San Geronimo, California.
I approached the visit with some trepidation. I’d known the roadhouse in its previous 40-year incarnation as Two Bird Café, which started its career as a motor inn and morphed into a popular roadside restaurant with three rooms for overnight guests. It has now passed into the hands of the Giacomini family and chef Alejandro Cano, and I was a bit worried they might have yielded to the temptation to stage a trendy makeover.
As you can imagine, I was enormously relieved to see the same sturdy wooden furniture standing its ground.
“We kept it pretty much the same,” Andrew Giacomini reassured me. “We changed the name — Giaco is my nickname, so we’re calling it Giaco’s Valley Roadhouse — and updated a bit, but kept the atmosphere.”
Whew! With that worry out of the way, I could get to grips with an even more critical question. “What is the secret of this Chicken Marsala? It’s extraordinary.”
“I keep asking Alejandro, but he won’t tell me,” he said, laughing. “It’s his closely guarded secret.”
Over dinner at Giaco’s, I told Rich, "I just read, on another roadhouse's website, the quote, 'We believe behind every favorite song there is an untold story.' You think that's true?”
He nodded, too busy ravaging the Chicken Marsala to speak.
Of course, I’ve known for ages his favorite song is Ben E. King’s 1961 classic “Stand by Me.” King incorporated words from an old gospel hymn drawn from Psalm 46: "will not we fear, though the Earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea." He tried to sell the song to the Drifters, but they turned him down (a move they no doubt came to regret) so he recorded it himself. The rest is megahit history. By now it’s been recorded by everyone from Otis Redding to John Lennon to Tracy Chapman to the 2015 lineup of the Drifters (better late than never).
“So why is it your favorite?” I asked Rich. But just then more wine arrived, and somehow the moment passed. We didn’t get around to discussing “Stand by Me” until two days later, during Sunday lunch in our garden.
“I’d always liked the song,” he said. “Then when I saw the movie, back in 1986, it became my all-time favorite. These boys go out on an adventure, and it took me right back to my childhood."
"When I was nine or ten," Rich said, "I started being allowed out on my own, without being under anyone’s watchful eye. My friend Bruce and I heard about this swamp in another part of town. It was supposed to have snakes and be dark and mysterious. So we decided we’d ride our bikes over there and have an adventure.
"We left our bikes at the edge of the swamp and walked in. It was very muddy, and we found a stream running under an old iron train trestle with graffiti all over it. We climbed on the train trestle and started inching our way out over the stream. It seemed so dangerous, but looking back, if we’d fallen, it was probably only fifteen feet. We kept looking for snakes; never found any. But it didn’t make any difference. It was my first big adventure. I felt like a free spirit. It was perfect.”
"Bruce and I made a pact to keep the place our secret. And I haven't really ever talked about it ... until now." He smiled at the memory and added, “It gave me a taste for adventure, for being spontaneous, and is probably the reason I travel the way I do today.”
Rich is never happier than when he’s setting off into the unknown, with minimal (if any) luggage and no fixed route or timeline, prepared to make frequent detours and follow whims to their illogical but fascinating conclusions. So far, he’s never invited me to shimmy along a train trestle, but we’ve done plenty of other chancy things; some of our exploits in Albania and the Peruvian Amazon come to mind. Not knowing what’s next adds to the fun; we’ve learned that too much advance planning can dull the edge of excitement and turn the whole enterprise into a mind-numbing exercise in dotting i’s and crossing t’s. “A journey is like marriage,” John Steinbeck once said. “The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Maybe that’s why I’m not so keen on the Seiryu Miharashi train station. When it comes to control, that bare platform clearly has the upper hand. I sometimes imagine travelers stepping off a train there, feeling interested and hopeful for about five minutes, walking from one end of the platform to the other and taking the usual selfies from this angle and that. And then, inevitably, they must realize they’ve plumbed the possibilities, and the next train won’t be along for 55 eternal minutes. Perhaps author PG Wodehouse describes that feeling best: “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” Or, as he writes of another character, “He had the look of one who had drunk from the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.”
In my view, travel should not evoke dead beetles but rather the intoxicating sense of freedom we felt for the first time as kids — and, if we’re lucky, have kept on cultivating ever since. “We travel, in essence, to become young fools again,” says essayist Pico Iyer. “To slow time down and get taken in, and to fall in love once more.” Travel reminds us of the thrill of mystery and the half-forgotten truth that every destination is standing by, ready to offer itself as our partner in whatever adventure lies ahead.
Do you have favorite song? Did you have adventures as kid? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.
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“Have you seen the ads for Toad Jam?” Rich asked excitedly. “It looks great!”
For one hideous moment I thought he was talking about some sort of marmalade made with mashed-up amphibious creatures, and I felt I had to draw the line. Oh sure, I’d eaten frogs legs a few times, and once fried flies in Thailand, but this seemed more worrying. More ... slimy.
“Look,” he added. “There’s the poster.”
Oh thank God, I thought. It’s a jamboree. “Do you think there will be actual toads playing music?” I asked hopefully. “Or singing?”
“No, but apparently the amphibians get to keep the money being raised.”
"Fair enough," I said. "They are going to need it."
Countless toads, frogs, and newts are singing the blues these days, as the coastal marshes they once called home are disappearing under the rising sea. This is bad news for California’s human habitats, too. Wetlands protect us against storm surges; without them draining the overflow, hurricanes and rainstorms can — as New Orleans learned to its cost — become catastrophic floods. Marshes also absorb carbon, and heaven knows we don’t need any more of that roaming free to pollute the atmosphere. Local high school senior Aidan O’Reilly decided to do something to help protect the wetlands, our amphibian-American neighbors, and incidentally all of us.
In an exclusive interview, Aidan told me the concert was the result of an assignment by his environmental science teacher. “He basically tasked all of us in the class to go out and find an environmental issue that we could plausibly solve or help. And I thought to myself, I really like music and I really like frogs so I should do something with that.” He took the idea to a town hall meeting, got other high school musicians involved, and last Saturday, Toad Jam had its day.
I liked the backstory, but to be honest, wasn’t expecting to enjoy the event itself. I find I’m not always in tune with the musical tastes of high school bands these days. But as it turned out, the music was heavenly: rich in harmony, spiced with sass, and at one point featuring Aiden on stage with a band that included his 70-year-old dad. The rapt crowd included high school students, gray-haired oldsters in tie-dyed shirts, families, little kids racing around, and dogs somehow snoozing through the uproar. It was my kind of party.
Best of all, listening to that music under those redwoods gave me a powerful upsurge in something that’s been in short supply lately: hope. In my frustration at the way world leaders are squandering the dwindling opportunities to keep our planet habitable, I sometimes forget just how many people and communities are dedicated to the idea that since humans are changing the planet, it might as well be for the better.
Environmental protection projects — some brilliant, some risky, some on the far side of fringe — are springing up worldwide. My home town of Menlo Park was the first city in America to commit itself to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. (Way to go, Menlo!) The Dutch city of Rotterdam has constructed the world’s largest floating office building, with 48,500 square feet of workspace riding on pontoons that will rise with sea levels. In other news, whale feces are being eyed as a resource for boosting the population of CO2-eating phytoplankton. Whatever it takes!
And then, of course, there’s Katy Ayers and her canoe made of mushrooms.
“Mushrooms are here to help us — they’re a gift,” says the Nebraska college student. “They’re our biggest ally for helping the environment.” If you think mushrooms’ greatest contribution to human happiness occurs on top of pizza, think again. Fungi are now biofuels, building materials, furniture, textiles, and more. Ford is using them to make compostable car parts. Ikea has devised mushroom-based packaging that will decompose in weeks, replacing polystyrene that lingers in landfills for centuries. But don’t worry, despite their newfound popularity, good old-fashioned edible mushrooms are still plentiful and still one of America’s favorite pizza toppings, second only to pepperoni.
Which brings us to the subject of meat. As you may have heard, eating less red meat is better for you, for the planet, and of course, for all those animals who are at home right now praying for an upswing in vegetarianism.
I was a vegetarian for years but gave it up as impractical when I moved to ham-loving Seville. Although it’s easier when I’m here in California, a 100% plant-based diet is no longer for me. When I’m researching a diner, dive bar, or road house, I don’t really feel I’m getting the full experience if I restrict myself to French fries or a cardboard veggie burger that’s been languishing in the depths of their freezer since the 1980s. But I am reducing my meat intake — and that of my carnivore husband. Rich, who has patiently adapted to my various food crazes, is willing to be seduced into meatless Mondays if the food is yummy enough. Here are three of his very favorites, to tempt you and yours.
Afghan Vegetables with Apples and Honey
Mediterranean Vegetables with Dried Apricots
Avocado Pesto with Broccoli and Pasta
I realize that my eating more broccoli isn’t going to pull the environment back from the brink of bio-disaster. But I think it’s time for an all-hands-on-deck approach, with all of us doing what we can individually and locally, as well as agitating for large-scale solutions.
We often talk about winning the battle against climate change, as if it were this generation's D-Day. But according to scientists such as UC Berkeley climate professor Kristina Hill, a quick, decisive victory is not on the horizon. “Sea level rise, for example,” she told NPR, “is now projected to happen even if we stopped every molecule of CO2 from leaving human activities and livestock today.” Most likely the West Coast will see the Pacific rise four to six feet by the end of this century. According to Hill, when it comes to war metaphors, we’re not at D-Day, we’re at Dunkirk. Our beleaguered planet is going to need a flotilla of volunteers to adapt, rescue those in danger, and buy us time to come up with long-term strategies that can turn the tide.
I do believe that in the end we will prevail. Humans are very, very clever creatures. We harnessed fire, domesticated plants and animals, walked on the moon, and invented the chocolate martini. We’ll get this done eventually, too.
Toad Jam wasn’t a major leap forward in saving the planet. But it was tremendous fun and left me feeling a tad more cheerful about the environment. These teens know they’re in danger, and — like the young people who fought at Dunkirk and helped with the rescue mission — they are prepared to do something about it. Thanks to Toad Jam, our endangered wetlands are a tiny bit safer today, and so are the toads, frogs, and newts who live there. And that’s one reason I have hope for the future.
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“Am I hallucinating,” Rich asked, “or is that man vacuuming his lawn?” I looked over and, yes, there was a guy standing on the live grass using a shop vacuum, the kind Rich keeps by his workbench to clean up wood shavings and such. Later, an online search revealed you can now buy dozens of machines specifically designed to suck up unwanted debris from your grass.
“Lawn vacuums are a thing now.” I sighed, shaking my head. “I am so out of touch.”
I say this a lot whenever I return to America after a long absence. During the last six months in Spain, it was easy enough to keep up with the big stuff online, but it’s the little changes — the ones everybody else takes for granted — that I keep tripping over. Like robots lined up on the sidewalk in Silicon Valley, ready to deliver groceries.
These little guys are amazing. Each can hold 20 pounds (about three bags full) inside its boxy cargo area. After you order with your app, the robot is filled at the store then trundles along the sidewalk, crossing streets and mounting curbs to find you. So far the robots aren’t able to climb stairs, use elevators, or flag down a passing driverless car, but clearly it’s only a matter of time. According to the inventors at Starship Technology, these robots “have been embraced by the local community.” And who wouldn’t be delighted to have R2D2 bringing you a quart of milk when you run low?
Speaking of beverages, I was much struck by an ad in our local paper with the headline, “Relax and Un-Wine.” It seems Napa vintners and cannabis cultivators put their heads together and created “alcohol-removed, cannabis-infused wines.” You get the civilized sensation of sipping a good chardonnay or pinot noir while buzzing like a stoner at a rock concert.
“What do you think?” I asked Rich. “A match made in heaven or Frankenstein’s monster? Should we try it? You know, as a service for my readers? It costs — yikes, forty-five dollars a bottle.” Rich just rolled his eyes.
Even without cannabis-infused chardonnay, I find California rather dizzying these days. The kaleidoscopic shifts in technology are only the beginning. I’m still re-adjusting to a world where people refer to the pandemic in the past tense and socialize as if it were 2019. “I feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon,” a friend remarked recently, and I know what she means. After two years of hunkering down, scrupulously observing safety protocols and minimizing human contact, I am now flung headlong into the hurly burly of a society ready to party.
Last year, social scientists predicted recovering from Covid — medically, economically, and socially —would take until 2024, and then we’d see another period of excess like the one that followed the 1918 flu pandemic. Looks like the New Roaring Twenties have arrived ahead of schedule.
“It’s a chaotic world out there,” Rich said over Sunday lunch in our garden. We’d been talking gloomily about the latest mass shooting, which had taken place only that morning in our state capital, leaving six dead, twelve wounded, and three gunmen on the run. (They've now been caught.) So far this year America has witnessed 119 such shooting sprees — more than one a day. More than we can bear.
“How do we live with this?” I asked.
“By creating a sanctuary, here at home,” Rich replied. “If the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that we can’t choose the world we live in, but we can choose how we cope with it.”
Some of the ways Rich and I cope include strictly limiting the amount of news we watch, getting plenty of exercise, and adopting European eating habits. This means five meals a day, each modest in size but allowing us to rise from the table satisfied, yet already thinking with pleased anticipation of the next culinary delights. In a chaotic world, sometimes the only thing that makes sense is comfort food.
As my long-time readers will recall, in 2019 Rich and I spent five months on the road sampling Mediterranean comfort food in ten countries, and I was about three-quarters of the way through writing a book about the trip when the pandemic struck. With travel no longer possible, the book no longer felt relevant; worse, it seemed a painful reminder of what we were all missing. Many of you wrote to ask if I was ever planning to revive the project, and I’m pleased to report that I am now back at work on it. And it's been a tremendous hoot; I’d actually forgotten a lot of the zany stuff we did and weird dishes we tried.
Of course, I’ll still be blogging, too. California never fails to provide gobs of material, what with all the hair-raising natural disasters, kookie cultural happenings, and great food. In the past I’ve sought out diners and dive bars, and this summer I’m thinking of exploring old-fashioned road houses.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a road house is a small eatery on or near a main road in a sparsely populated area, a place to pause and regroup en route to somewhere else. Roadside diners are similar in providing meals, but a road house is a bit more like an old coaching inn, a place where back in the day you could water your horses, slake your own thirst, enjoy a meal, and overnight in an upstairs room. Nowadays fewer of them still offer lodgings, but the tradition of hospitality remains. “Road houses,” notes Wikipedia, “have a slightly disreputable image, similar to honkey tonks.” I like the sound of that.
Adding to the fun, I’ve learned that many road houses cater cheerfully — almost excessively — for the traveling dog. For instance, 7 Mile House not only offers a complete canine menu (angus beef, grilled chicken, pig ears) but gives Fido a free peanut butter biscuit during Yappy Hour, and sells Doggie Cigars (don’t worry, they’re tobacco-free beef jerky) and Bowser Beer (it’s actually broth). You’re invited to bring your dog down for a Pawty to celebrate beneath the banner that reads, “It’s my birthday, bitches!” And they of course mean that literally. Celebrations finish up with Ben and Jerry’s Doggie Ice Cream.
Rich has selflessly volunteered to help with taste-testing all road house food, but only from the human part of the menu. Although he seemed rather intrigued by the canine Ben and Jerry’s.
Whenever I return to California, I brace myself for the unexpected. My first week back, I’ve stumbled upon lawn vacuums, delivery robots, and cannabis wine, and no doubt this is just the warm-up for stranger things. I keep thinking of that scene in All About Eve when up-to-no-good Bette Davis downs a martini in a single gulp and announces, “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.” I don’t know what form this summer’s turbulence will take; my home state is prone to earth-shaking, bone-rattling seismic shifts — geological, social, cultural, and culinary. But at least it’s not dull, and I will never run out of stuff to write about.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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