My beautiful cousin, Karen, escaping the discomforts of mid-west winter, spent a couple of weeks with me recently. She’s like a second sister, even though we were parted when my family left Michigan for California when I was ten. Somehow, that similar yet different childhood made us compatible on a very basic level. We were taught the same manners and consideration for others; we share a passion for nutritious food; we love the outdoors and gardening; and we are the same age with the same age-related limitations. Our dissimilarities are profound but because neither of us needs to change the other, we can even discuss our differences without rancor.
Karen invited her friend, Kari, who is thirty years younger than we are, to join us on a four-day auto trip to Zion National Park. I enthusiastically planned the journey, right down to where we would eat breakfast the first morning. I had met Kari a couple of times before and felt confident she would be a welcome addition to our party. Originally, my sister, Babs, had planned to go with us but decided that it wasn’t a good idea to leave Mom home with only Mike to look after her. He’s not much of a cook.
The distance between home and Zion is only about 400 miles and can easily be driven in a day, but I had in mind a shun-piking tour that would take us far from the interstate highway. Our journey began after a scant breakfast, (coffee and freshly picked oranges) with an ascent of our local mountains. Virtually two blocks away from my doorstep, Highway 38 begins a scenic drive through the Angelus National Forest, which is my biking playground. There is no greater joy than sharing one’s pleasure with another as it allows one to see it anew from the perspective of the first-time visitor. We followed the highway to Big Bear Lake where we headed north towards the high desert town of Lucerne Valley.
Lucerne Valley is a lost-in-time crossroads of a town, a post office, a gas station, a feed store, and a mom & pop, or should I say, a mama y papa restaurant, El Coyote Loco. I’d learned that this restaurant was something of a hidden gem in the desert and we were not disappointed. I should have taken pictures for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of this type of dining establishment but I’ll try to briefly give you the flavor of the place.
A once-paved parking area, planters of cactus & succulent plantings around a weathered plywood door, listing on it’s hinges. An ante room to buffer the dining area from the dust and wind, populated with a few picnic tables with plastic table cloths of various patterns. The ubiquitous Mexican oom-pa-pa, ranchero music, a charming, young, Hispanic waitress with a smile so dazzling the desert sun seemed pale by comparison, plastic-sleeved menus. The menu replete with every familiar Southern California dish, burritos, tacos, huevos rancheros, chilis relleno, enchiladas, sopas, and the less familiar with ingredients not normally eaten by us gringos (or guerras in our case) like menudo (tripe soup), lengua (tongue), and other meats of unfamiliar persuasion. An impeccably clean but well-worn dining room, booths bearing the impressions of muchos nalgas (many bottoms), and a restroom where one is encouraged to use water sparingly and not put hygiene products into the plumbing system, equally clean.
My test of every Mexican restaurant is the chili relleno and the salsa fresca. This place nailed both. A freshly-roasted, peeled and seeded, sweet poblano chili, stuffed with cheese, dipped in an egg batter, and fried to a golden brown, then smothered in a slightly spicy ranchero sauce of fresh tomatoes and other savory vegetables. Not exactly health food but no animals died for it and it was muy delicioso.
On the two-lane road again, we intended to jog east a bit and then connect with a road that would take us north to the interstate. But, as luck would have it, we missed the north turn and blithely continued east, then south, then a little east, then more south than east, and finally due south. As the driver, I probably should have either taken a map, or short of that, told my navigator with the cell phone of the intended route, but of course, it was too late for that now. When I saw a sign indicating that Yucca Valley was coming up, my suspicion that we were off course was confirmed. We had essentially traveled north two steps (our destination being north ten steps), and then south three steps. It was a lovely drive with almost no traffic.
Kari, always the technically agile youngster in the car, quickly found an alternate route on her cell phone that would take us through uncharted territory, northward towards Hoover Dam.
We reached the dam too late in the day to catch a tour but we weren’t too disappointed as the walk across the dam and the view of the canyon were worth the price of admission ($15 for parking).
With our room awaiting us in Mesquite we joined the evening rush hour traffic through Las Vegas to make our way east, out of Sodom and Gomorrah. None of us looked back. We arrived after dark and ready for dinner. We agreed that Italian sounded like the best bet and drew straws to see who would be the designated driver. Actually, Kari kindly offered to take the wheel which freed me to have a glass of wine with a very nice meal. We were all ready for bed, eager for hiking in Zion the next day.