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Here comes summer

Bucolic reflections at the onset of tourist season

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Summertime is almost here, and we know what that means—time to draw the shutters, crank up the AC, and brace ourselves for the onslaught of seasonal visitors rolling in from the hot valleys and big cities.

Whether they come to beat the heat, escape the congestion, or simply dodge the in-laws, you can bet the throngs of out-of-towners will soon be descending all over the Central Coast. And why not? If you were planning a getaway out of Stockton or San Bernadino, you could do a lot worse than the fresh air, rolling hills, and sandy beaches of SLO County.

There’s no denying the rustic charm of our flaxen hillsides, as they cascade gently into the Pacific. Traversing these grassy slopes of amber and sienna, an unknowing visitor might easily think he’s been transported to the golden plains of Tuscany; and then, of course, Wal-Mart creeps over the horizon. And the broad swaths of soft sand that line our expansive beaches—punctuated by picturesque cliffs and jagged outcroppings—create the convincing illusion of some tropical paradise, until the first icy wave crashes on your feet and knocks the umbrella out of your Jamba Juice.

Though they don’t adorn the rolling pastures of Italy, the vineyards that blanket the hills and valleys of the Central Coast produce wine that tastes every bit as good and draws as many tourists as anything else between Guadalupe and Big Sur. The true connoisseurs might come earlier for the Zinfest in March or Hospice du Rhône in May, or later for the harvest. Harvest season doesn’t start until late October, but drinking season is year-round.

Did I say drinking? I mean tasting. But when hundreds of wineries are each offering samples of a half dozen different varietals at little or no cost, the sophisticated ritual of tasting begins to look a lot more like an orgy of gratuitous consumption.

So persuasive was the dialog in Sideways that swarms of bachelors and mid-life crisis candidates continue flocking to the Central Coast in search of quaffable wines and eligible waitresses, eager to re-enact the entire screenplay, excepting of course the scene in which the naked guy is chased out of the bedroom and down the street by the well-tattooed boyfriend.

Those whose palate is primarily informed by the guild of Hollywood screenwriters—convinced that nothing can surpass the subtle complexity of a delicate pinot noir and loath to touch a merlot with a ten-foot oyster cracker—will prefer to mingle among the sensitive, fog-kissed canyons of the South County, where Pinots and Chardonnays flourish at their very finest. I for one prefer the big, bad zins and cabs that do so well in the rugged heat of Paso Robles, but any connoisseur will assure you that we’re denigrating the art of viniculture with our gross oversimplification of grapes.

I guess that’s what separates the tasters from the drinkers. But these breeches of etiquette are par for the course on a summer vacation, and do no harm except possibly to the pride of those college-educated bartenders who prefer to be known as tasting-room associates.

The Central Coast boasts another huge attraction that pairs nicely with a drink called Bud Light. Of course I’m referring to that sandy stretch of highway known as the Oceano Dunes, which lures many thousands of off-road enthusiasts every season, many of whom extend their vacations with an unscheduled trip to the emergency room at Arroyo Grande Hospital. It should come as no surprise that this rare breed of thrill seekers should all scurry to Oceano to participate in this unique form of ecotourism.

In the interest of protecting endangered bird habitat and other fragile coastal ecosystems, every other seaside community in California has outlawed the use of recreational vehicles on its beaches. But for those who put their skid marks ahead of their own health and safety, Oceano remains a beacon on an otherwise over-regulated horizon.

And there’s no better time to celebrate personal freedom than the Fourth of July because, not surprisingly, Oceano and Grover Beach happen to be among only five communities in the county not to have outlawed fireworks. So for three or four days of the holiday weekend, the whole South Coast starts to sound like the climax of Reservoir Dogs, and it’s every man, woman, and child for himself or herself.

The greatest display of patriotism takes place in the dunes themselves, where campers burrow into the sand to position their fireworks for detonation and to brace themselves for the shelling. Not since the Siege of Khartoum has any patch of sand borne witness to such a merciless assault on civilization. But unlike the participants in that skirmish, most of these tourists will make it back to Bakersfield alive.

Eventually they do head home, and the Central Coast slowly finds the vanishing point in the rear view mirror. And for those of us lucky enough to stay, it remains an untainted Eden of uncongested country roads, unlimited beach front, unscripted drinking, and unrestricted pyrotechnics. Or so they would have us believe. But as long as this place comes anything close to paradise, the misadventures of these wayward weekend warriors are just one small inconvenience we’ll have to put up with.

Jeff Hornaday is a former New Times arts editor and owns the Bambu Batu store in downtown SLO.

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